The Paris Library meets The Flight Girls in this captivating historical novel about the sacrifice and courage necessary to live a life of honor, inspired by the first female volunteer librarians during World War I and the first women accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy.
Two women. One secret. A truth worth fighting for.
1918. Timid and shy Emmaline Balakin lives more in books than her own life. That is, until an envelope crosses her desk at the Dead Letter Office bearing a name from her past, and Emmaline decides to finally embark on an adventure of her own—as a volunteer librarian on the frontlines in France. But when a romance blooms as she secretly participates in a book club for censored books, Emmaline will need to find more courage within herself than she ever thought possible in order to survive.
1976. Kathleen Carre is eager to prove to herself and to her nana that she deserves her acceptance into the first coed class at the United States Naval Academy. But not everyone wants female midshipmen at the Academy, and after tragedy strikes close to home, Kathleen becomes a target. To protect herself, Kathleen must learn to trust others even as she discovers a secret that could be her undoing.
Release date: August 9, 2022
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Print pages: 384
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The War Librarian
I stood stiffly at the ship’s railing and watched New Jersey recede into the distance: the smokestacks puffing, the ships docked at the Hoboken wharf, the industrial warehouses stacked high as the USS Aeolus’s mast. I could no longer make out the shapes of the people on land, but I knew they were there. Only a half hour ago, I’d looked down from this very spot and watched soldiers and sailors scurrying around the dockyards. Only half an hour before that, I’d sat in a motorcar and looked out at a silent town of women and children.
I’d grown used to the sight of wives without husbands and children without fathers. And I’d grown used to being alone. The anonymous gray shoreline now seemed a reflection of my own flat and gloomy half-life—I didn’t know whether leaving would be the beginning of my story or the end of it.
I fingered Nicholas’s letter in my pocket like a talisman and prayed this journey would be not just a blip in my life but the beginning of a new one. After twenty-three years of living in black and white, I deserved something different.
Or did I? Perhaps I had no one to blame but myself. No one had forced me into the shadows; no one had told me I’d be safer in a stack of books than in the real world. But I’d learned it nonetheless. When my mother was killed in a streetcar accident in my fourteenth year, my father retreated into books and I followed. Though he sent me off to boarding school when I was fifteen in the hopes that I would benefit from being around other women, he joined my mother in heaven after a heart attack just a year later, and I became the only student to stay at school through the holidays and the summer. Alone for long stretches of time, I turned back to my old comfort, books my most constant friends and solace.
After I finished boarding school, I got a job at the Dead Letter Office, where I could continue to use words as a shield against real life. But now, five years later, I was sailing away from the only place I’d ever known. Just like Mama and Papa had twenty-three years earlier.
My parents left Russia for the noblest of reasons. As professionals in St. Petersburg, they’d waged a quiet battle against Czar Alexander III’s censorship, lending out their own copies of forbidden books and ignoring the government threats—until they learned I was on the way. They’d been willing to risk their own lives, but not mine, and so they packed up and left their homeland so that their child could be raised in a world of intellectual freedom. They used the money they’d been able to take from Russia to purchase a townhouse in Washington, D.C., and my mother had quickly become the center of the city’s Russian community. But it all fell apart when she died.
My mother had lived a colorful life, and that was what I wanted to do now. I was tired of being forgettable, invisible Emmaline: the girl who handled dead letters about more interesting lives than her own.
I pulled myself away from the ship’s railing. If I was going to embark on a new life, I had to stop gazing backward into the past; I didn’t have to watch the shoreline until it receded.
My feet slid on the deck as the ship roiled, but I didn’t fall. I took one ginger step at a time, finding my footing, as I explored the place that would be my home for the next two weeks. I couldn’t pretend I liked it. The USS Aeolus had been seized from Germany’s luxury cruise line months ago, but the Germans had ransacked her beforehand. The ship was a metal beast, hulking in size, and the floral wallpaper that peeked through in spots as a reminder of its past life only made it eerier. The razzle-dazzle war paint on deck, zigzagging black and white lines that crashed and intercepted at seemingly random intervals, dizzied me. I supposed that was the point. The camouflage didn’t aid the ship in blending in; it simply disoriented the enemy so they couldn’t grasp the size, speed, or direction of the ship.
The enemy. I’d read about them in the newspapers and prayed for the men abroad, but I’d never expected to enter a world in which I’d be their target. A world in which I was on a Navy transport ship so vulnerable to German U-boats that we were surrounded by a convoy of ships meant to protect us.
I continued past the mess hall, its polished wood floor suggesting a past as a ballroom or first-class dining room, and into the belly of the ship. Here, finally, was something familiar: the ship library. There wasn’t much to it beyond a few crates of books and a plank of wood that had been fashioned into a sign: TRANSPORT FROM AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION FOR ALL MEN ON BOARD. The room had low metal ceilings, and my pumps echoed ominously on metal floors crisscrossed with hatches and handles and levers. But I knew already that I would be more comfortable here than anywhere else on the ship. I set to work immediately sorting the books by genre and author, my hands moving almost of their own accord as I went through everything from textbooks on engineering and mechanical handbooks to collections of poetry and authors like Twain and McCutcheon. In this comfortable, familiar space, it was easier to remember why I’d chosen to join the war effort overseas. The decision went back further than the conversation at Camp Meade when they’d asked if I’d be interested in serving in France; further even than the day a month ago when I’d donated a pile of books to the Library War Service and mentioned to the girl at the desk that I wanted to be a war librarian. It went back to the day Nicholas’s letter had landed on my desk at the Dead Letter Office.
The letter meant for another woman.
The letter I’d opened, read, and responded to.
The letter I’d stolen.
I tried to put the letter out of my mind and tell myself it was a normal day. There was no use focusing on maybes or what-ifs; they wouldn’t get me anywhere. So I started the day the same way I’d started every day for the past two years. My alarm went off at five o’clock in the morning, and I was in shorts, my jogbra, and an old tee by 5:10 a.m. I devoured a Space Food Stick, brushed my teeth, slicked my straight hair back into a ponytail, laced up my tennis shoes, and checked in on my nana Nellie sleeping peacefully before jogging downstairs.
I took deep breaths in through my nose and out through my mouth as I ran, imagining that each breath was clearing my head of all its thoughts and worries. Running was the only time I didn’t go endlessly through my to-do list—though, strictly speaking, running was part of that list, too.
I knew my route well. Past the strip malls, past the apartment buildings and fire escapes. I kept my Mace tucked into the palm of my hand, though I’d never had to use it before. Better to be too prepared than caught defenseless.
When I returned to the apartment building where I’d lived with Nana for the past fourteen years, I did a series of sit-ups and push-ups, the same sequence I’d been required to do for my Naval Academy admissions test. Then I showered, trying and failing to keep my mind off the letter I was expecting that afternoon. If I got the news I wanted, I wouldn’t be able to take long, thoughtful showers for much longer.
I toweled off, brushed out my hair, and dressed for work. The whole process was another thing I hoped would change soon. If all went according to plan, these would be my last few months dressing for work in sheath dresses and pleated skirts with pantyhose.
Nana was in the kitchen with a bowl of oatmeal by the time I passed through on my way out, and I blew her a kiss. “See you this afternoon, Nana.”
She looked up from her bowl and raised her eyebrows. “Slow down, you. What makes any granddaughter of mine think she can leave without a goodbye?”
I hid a smile as I backed away from the door and gave Nana a quick hug. “Sorry.”
“Have a good day, Kathleen. I love you.” She never let me leave without telling me that first.
“I love you, too.”
I retraced my steps downstairs and stretched my long legs as I walked to the Metro. I stood in the crowded car to make room for pregnant women and families to sit, and then strode quickly to work, reveling in the feel of my hips opening and my hamstrings aching from my run.
When I arrived at the dentistry ten minutes before opening, the door was still locked. My eyes rolled back at me in the window’s reflection. My boss, the dentist himself, was never on time. I spent most of my mornings making excuses for him, patients’ vitriol directed at me rather than at the man at fault. I couldn’t wait until I was at a place where rank was earned, a place where we worked together for a common goal.
A place like the Naval Academy.
Patience, Kathleen. I squeezed my fingers around the key to the office, and its jagged edges stung my skin. I’d done everything I could have to get an appointment to the Naval Academy: the application, the congressional recommendations, the physical fitness test. Now all I could do was focus on the work I had to do in this moment whether I got in or not.
I unlocked the office door and let myself in, busying myself with tasks long since familiar. I was supposed to be a bookkeeper, not a secretary, but that didn’t mean half my working hours weren’t spent fixing the thermostat, straightening chairs, and answering phone calls. I didn’t mind the routine; it was the meaninglessness of it that I hated. That Soviet lunar robot Lunokhod could have done my job for me. It was rote. But it was a job that paid, so I settled myself behind the desk and opened the appointment book.
Dr. Lloyd rushed in only minutes after I sat down, and I plastered a smile on my face. “Good morning, Dr. Lloyd.”
“Good morning, Kathleen.”
It rankled me that I didn’t deserve the moniker of Miss Kathleen in his eyes, much less Miss Carre. But hopefully I’d be Midshipman Carre soon, and if not, I’d try again next year in my last year of age eligibility. If that didn’t work, I’d enlist. One way or another, I was going to do my duty in a way that mattered.
The day passed tediously, as it always did, so when the dentistry closed its doors two painful minutes after five o’clock, I shot off like a rocket. Surely the mail had come by now.
I fidgeted on the Metro and raced through the streets, ignoring the strain in my ankles as I ran across the uneven concrete sidewalks in my pumps. Inside the apartment building, I skidded to a stop in front of the row of metal mailboxes and unlocked the one that read Carre, Nellie R. with trembling hands. There it was, the heavy envelope from Annapolis, Maryland.
This was the letter.
I wanted to open it then and there, but too many other residents were bustling in and out of the mailroom. I sprinted up the stairs with the letter instead, throwing my purse onto the side table and halting in front of Nana in her armchair.
“Is that it?”
I nodded wordlessly at my grandmother as I slid the letter out, the blue inked eagle revealing the tips of his wings. The words on the letterhead, DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY, unfurled down my spine.
Miss Kathleen Carre
4 Martins Lane
I am pleased to offer you an appointment to the United States Naval Academy as a member of the Class of 1980.
The Class of 1980: the first class that would graduate from the Naval Academy with women alongside the men. The National Organization for Women had been campaigning for the service academies to admit women since I graduated from high school in 1972, and President Gerald Ford had signed the act into law in October of last year. I already knew the Naval Academy history backward and forward, and it had been all-male since its founding in 1845.
But now, only three more months. Three more months until we charged through the Naval Academy doors with the men. Just three more months of skirts and coifs, of cleaning up my boss’s messes and staring endlessly at the swinging door of his office.
Nana was smiling softly up at me. “I take it they accepted you?”
“Yes!” I thrust the letter into her hands, and she squinted down at it. When she looked up, her smile was even wider. But her eyes were hooded and dark.
I fidgeted on my feet, waiting for Nana’s congratulations. She was always my most vocal supporter. I held myself to high standards; when I accomplished a goal, I simply viewed it as having met an expectation. But Nana always made me celebrate. She took me out for ice cream when I was elected fifth-grade class president, bought a display case for my track trophy in ninth grade despite the expense, and wrote in all her Christmas cards that I’d graduated from high school summa cum laude. For thisgoal, which had been my dream forever, I expected her to outdo herself.
But instead, hooded eyes. Hooded eyes and silence.
I took back the letter and looked at it again. I am pleased to offer you . . .
The tightness that Nana’s expression pulled in my chest couldn’t stop me from smiling at those words. I’d done so much to get into the academy. I’d written Congressman Walter Fauntroy and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller for a nomination, both of them limited to ten nominations per vacancy and five attending nominees. I’d taken the SAT, two years after my wealthier classmates—though several of the poorer ones had never taken it at all. Then had come the candidate fitness assessment: the one-mile run, the shuttle run, kneeling basketball throws, crunches, push-ups, and flexed-arm hangs. For a girl who’d run track all through high school, the mile run was the easiest. Only the twenty push-ups and sixteen-second flexed-arm hangs had taken much practice on my part, which I blamed on the fact that girls weren’t permitted to do anything strength-based in high school gym class. I’d had to start from scratch, working early mornings and late nights to be ready for the fitness test, and I hadn’t stopped since. I knew I’d need to far exceed those requirements at the academy itself. If the rumors I’d heard were true, each new recruit did three thousand push-ups over the course of plebe summer.
Finally, after all the application paperwork and the physical test, I’d had the interview with a Blue and Gold Officer. Mine was the father of a current midshipman who hadn’t seemed all too keen on women entering the academy, but apparently he’d reported my answers and my passion faithfully nonetheless. I took it now as a sign that the academy would be as focused on integrity and merit as I’d always imagined.
What I hadn’t imagined was Nana’s apathy. “Nana?”
“Sorry, Kathleen.” She shook her head and stretched her lips even further into a smile that looked almost garish on my reserved grandmother. “I just want to be sure that this is what you want.”
I let out a startled laugh. Nana knew this was what I wanted. She’d been by my side throughout the entire process. Before it had begun, she’d watched the congressional hearings with me as the NOW president and vice president argued for women’s inclusion in the service academies; before that, she’d listened to a young Kathleen talk about duty and honor and pride.
“Nana, of course this is what I want.” I felt my eyebrows pull together and tried to soften my gaze for this woman who’d done everything for me. “You know that.”
“I do.” Nana shook her head. “I’m sorry.” But she still didn’t look convinced, and so I tried to remind her exactly why this had always been my dream. There were too many reasons to count. I craved the discipline and the purpose. I wanted to be selfless and honorable.
I wanted to live the life my mother wasn’t living.
I’d been eight years old when my mother Jane had decided the “traditional” life wasn’t for her. My father had toured Asia and Europe during the Second World War in an Army band, rather than inside a tank like most of the men of his generation, and he’d come home with stories of rich food and rushing waterfalls and great stone fortresses. His descriptions inspired in my mother a passionate jealousy and an urge to travel herself, but it wasn’t a desire my father had indulged. The war was over, he was home, and it was time to start a family.
But years passed, and a baby didn’t come. At least not before my father was shipped off again in 1951, this time to Korea. He made it through the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge and the Battle of Bloody Ridge, came home on a three-week furlough in 1953, and then shipped off again. He’d survived World War II and two of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War, but it was his last month overseas that killed him. He died in the war’s final battle.
My mom was devastated, Nana told me, but she also had the opportunity to do what she hadn’t before. She applied to write for Venture and planned to travel the world—until, one month later, she discovered she was pregnant with me. And so D.C. had remained our home.
At least until 1962, when John Glenn orbited the Earth and reignited my mother’s itch to go—if not as far as Glenn—as far as she could. She finally became a travel writer, going where she wanted and using her writing to fund it. My mother left; I stayed. Nana became my mother for all intents and purposes, I became a Carre like my grandparents, and my mother became Jane. I refused to talk to her when she visited one week after my ninth birthday. Eventually I understood her desire for a life beyond marriage and children and meaningless jobs that did nothing but pay the bills. But I also knew that if I ever had a baby, no matter the sort of life I wanted, I would never leave her. I believed in duty over desire.
So it was my nana, Nellie Carre, who’d served as one of the few women in the Motor Corps in World War I, who was my hero. Not my mother, who hopped from city to city without a permanent address or a phone number. Even before she left, she’d constantly changed her jobs and her hairstyles and her schedule. What she’d considered exciting had just seemed unreliable to me, and I’d sworn long ago that I would be the opposite. That I would find a purpose beyond myself. That I would live with precision. And that I would do for others, not just for me.
I remembered sitting at six years old with my pigtails and listening to JFK’s inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” He’d been the first Catholic president, the youngest president, the first president born in the twentieth century. At seven, eating a TV dinner in a house with no TV, I wanted to be three things: JFK, my nana, and not my mother.
Many of the other girls at school weren’t allowed to come over to play with me, apparently fearing that my mother’s wayward ways were catching. In high school, I joined the track and field team and learned what it was to have a community. I understood the allure of bonding over a common goal and a shared challenge. I understood celebrating with the girls who passed the baton to you before the final leg of the race. ...
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