As a reader, my most favorite genre is historical fiction, particularly when they center women’s stories. Adding to facts with shape and color highlights an often overlooked aspect of history. In historical fiction, I get to travel to another place and time, and learn some things along the way. I recognize historical fiction can be a slippery slope, occasionally trading some truths for embellished stories to enhance a narrative arc. But beyond that complexity, in general I think historical fiction is an exercise in empathy, particularly when the story is told from a relatively quiet character in the original “historical” reading.
Raising up the voices can shine a light on a new point of view. It’s why Anita Diamant’s groundbreaking book The Red Tent was such a powerful, revolutionary piece of writing. And it’s why I’m really enjoying reading The Personal Librarian, co-written by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. This book recounts the story of J.P. Morgan’s librarian, who helped him collect manuscripts, books and art that were ultimately donated to the City of New York, and can be enjoyed by all of us today at The Morgan. But the personal story of this librarian is what makes the story so compelling- the real person, Belle da Costa Greene, was a white-passing black woman. And we get to learn the backstory of all of the complexity, strain and stress this caused Belle and her family. What courage and resilience this woman must have had- walking into work each day trying to hide an aspect of herself. In the end, Belle da Costa Greene died in 1950, having ran the library for 40 years at great personal cost, never revealing her race to her employer. Through reading Belle’s story, I have a greater appreciation for how women navigated personal and professional relationships in the first half of the 20th Century; the race component of the story heightens the intrigue, and my appreciation for this amazing woman. She’s definitely a woman I would have loved to meet!
Did you read this book? I’d love to talk to you about it!