Women in a World Designed for Men: A WWI librarian and a Naval Academy plebe confront injustice
By Peggy Burch
via the Chapter 16 web site
In The War Librarian, Nashville-based writer Addison Armstrong confronts urgent contemporary cultural conflicts — misogyny, racism, and book banning — by taking a detailed dive into two moments in history. Armstrong’s primary characters are women fighting the harassment and injustice they faced 50 and 100 years ago, but their fictional struggles and outrage feel fresh and current.
As in Armstrong’s first novel, The Light of Luna Park, The War Librarian switches between two narrators, seemingly unrelated women living in separate times and places whose tales gradually converge. The title character is Emmaline Balakin, who travels to France during World War I to provide books to wounded U.S. soldiers. The parallel narrator is Kathleen Carre, who enters the Naval Academy in 1976, the first year women were accepted at Annapolis.
After arriving in France in 1918, Emmaline is dropped into a field hospital for 2,000 men during the crucial last weeks of the war, and like everyone on the scene, she observes the men’s gruesome injuries, dodges bombs, and sleeps with a helmet on her face and a gas mask by her side.
As Armstrong notes, volunteer librarians in World War I were a vital resource. Before Emmaline begins pushing her wheelchair loaded with books — Dickens, Twain, Treasure Island, The Call of the Wild — through the wards, where patients have “nothing to do for days but count the swirls of grain in the wood,” she is already a heroine: “[T]he patient nearest the door sat bolt upright when I entered. A harsh cough burst from his throat, but he was smiling. ‘The librarian is here!’ His announcement was met with whoops and cheers.”
But on a visit to the American Library in Paris, idealistic Emma is shocked to see a list of books the U.S government has prohibited, including titles on pacifism and the hardships of war: “Was it disloyal for me to think, as more and more men died each day and were carted to the morgue across from my bedroom, that peace was exactly what we needed?” She has already confronted the segregation of Black and white patients at the hospital by starting a book club, and now she’s staring down the hard place where freedom of speech meets military opposition.
Meanwhile, Naval Academy student Kathleen is discovering in 1976 that she was naïve to believe she was joining a supportive community of noble-minded students. She finds that some of her fellow midshipmen resent the women in their midst enough to engage in sabotage. And reporting harassment and dirty tricks may be interpreted as weakness or dismissed as hazing. As Kathleen’s grandmother had warned when her acceptance to the academy arrived: “’It’s hard to be a woman in a world designed for men.’ I laughed at this. ‘Nana, we both do that every day.’ She didn’t smile back.”
Read the entire article on the Chapter 16 web site here:
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