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Start reading an exclusive extract from The Librarians of Rue de Picardie by Janet Skeslien Charles.


PROLOGUE

You can learn a lot about a life by looking in someone’s closet. I stand before mine, pondering which outfit to wear tonight, and thumb through fitted cardigans and slacks, remnants of a long career. Cramped to the side are relics of a past life: the witch’s hat and smock that pupils begged me to wear each Halloween; a wedding gown that didn’t quite make it to the altar; and the uniform of the American Committee for Devastated France—horizon blue, the same color that the French army wore. I can’t help but touch the hem of the skirt. Seventy years old, and the wool blend, warm and light, still embodies the quality that Paris is famous for. The stories this cloth could tell . . . the fabric of life during the Great War. It had seen love and hate, sacrifice and stinginess, longing and hope, despair and courage. Always courage.

My fingers continue along the sleeve, to the rust-colored stain on the cuff. No matter how we washed it—dabbed with seltzer water, soaked in iodine, scrubbed with Marseille soap—his blood wouldn’t come out. No matter. The material is nearly dark enough to conceal it, and the discoloration can be attributed to a splatter of ratatouille.

To free the uniform, I seize the shoulders and pull, allowing myself to cradle the jacket as if it were a woman I could embrace. Something digs into my chest. On the lapel, a medal hangs from a blue-and-white striped ribbon. The silver has tarnished, but I can make out the griffin, the symbol of the Cards. On the reverse is engraved DO RIGHT AND FEAR NO MAN.

If I don the uniform, would it fit? Only one way to find out. Yes, the jacket is elegant over my blouse. Encouraged, I shimmy out of my slacks, only to find that the skirt bites at the waist. Still, it feels right, as if the uniform wants to be worn. The final touch is the handkerchief, its cloth worn thin by time. I slide it into my pocket.

I glance at my watch. Nearly 7:00 p.m. Th e decision of what to wear has been made—if I don’t leave now, I’ll be late. I rush from the apartment, up Fifth Avenue, to the New York Public Library. Shoulders squared, I march up the steps like I have thousands of times before. Upon my arrival in Manhattan, this was my school, my social life, my home.

In the hall, my fingertips trace scuff marks along the walls. Some may see imperfections, but I remember crates being delivered, a run-away book cart crashing down the staircase, and apprentices like me accidentally smudging the white paint with blotter ink that clung to our skin like perfume.

The past presses on me, memories fill the air. I clutch the handkerchief and know that now, finally, it’s time.

 

CHAPTER 1

Jessie Carson
The North of France, January 1918
Forty miles from the front

The narrow dirt road was pockmarked from shelling. Lewis, the chauffeur, advanced through shrapnel and around gaping pot-holes. In the passenger seat, I held tight to the door. The Ford hit a rut, and my head snapped back. I winced, not merely from the pain, but from the sight of fields stitched with barbed wire.

Destruction stretched to the horizon. There was not a single soul, nor a blade of grass, and the countryside blended with the gray clouds to form a colorless, hopeless terrain. Inhabitants had fled or been taken prisoner. The German army had obliterated homes and schools, churches and hospitals, libraries and lives. On farms, they bombed the rows of wheat that stood up to them. In orchards, they took axes to innocent apple trees. Branches lay on the ground, their dried-up leaves whispering in the wind.

At the checkpoint that would allow us to enter the war zone, we slowed to a stop behind five military trucks. Lewis cut the engine and lit a cigarette, which meant that we’d be here for a while. I pulled the collar of my woolen coat closer as the damp cold closed in. While Lewis sifted through the documents—passports, working papers, and authorizations stamped with blue ink, I squinted at the flakes of frost that clung to the corner of the windshield and discovered a kaleidoscope of designs. Silvery butterfly wings. A child’s mitten. Yes, my father had been right: even in the grimmest places, beauty abounded, if only you knew how to look.

“What a stiff rump!” Lewis gestured to a French military policeman who seemed to scrutinize each syllable of a truck driver’s paperwork. “At this rate, we’ll never get through.”

As we waited, scenes of my journey flitted through my mind, flapping like pages of a book caught in the wind. The ocean passage, in which my cabin-mate, a Red Cross volunteer, wore her life jacket the entire three weeks. Though afraid our ship would be torpedoed like the Lusitania, she sailed anyway. What courage! On our arrival in Bordeaux, my shipmates and I tasted real French wine and glimpsed angels and gargoyles in the architecture. Motoring to Paris, our Peugeot putted past lines of poplars that shaded the road. In the capital, Lewis helped me obtain authorizations to enter the war zone. We queued for hours at the police station to receive a stamped paper before dashing across the cobblestones to the Ministry of War, only to stand in line again. A three-day, herky-jerky, foreign-language obstacle course. I’d been in France for ten days, long enough to marvel at two elements—the awe-inspiring architecture and the mind-numbing administration.

Finally, the truck in front of us, which transported crates of cabbage alongside kegs of gunpowder, advanced. It was our turn. As he examined the papers, the MP frowned.

Seeing me tug nervously at my handkerchief, Lewis said, “You needn’t fret.”

The MP pointed to a line at the bottom of a document. Lewis flipped the page and pointed to the prefect’s scrawl. “We’ve done our bit. Now do yours and let us through.”

He gestured to me. “But it says that she’s a li—”

“We’re with the Morgan Brigade,” Lewis informed him in crisp, I’m-nearing-the-end-of-my-patience French.

The MP went slack-jawed. “Merci.” He waved us through.

I asked why he’d thanked us. Lewis responded that Anne Morgan’s efforts were known in these parts. And not just here. Miss Morgan was the reason I’d come. She’d commissioned a photographer and a film-maker to record the effects of war. Back home, in a cinema around the The Librarians of Rue de Picardie 5 corner from the New York Public Library, the audience had gaped at the images of a wan, white-haired farm couple dressed head to toe in black. Their craggy faces conveyed that they’d toiled under an unforgiving sun their entire lives. The Germans had slaughtered their goat and gelding, set their seeds on fire, and reduced their farmhouse to rubble. Arms limp at their sides, the couple lingered in front of their bombed-out barn, ghosts left with nothing to haunt. After the viewing, I couldn’t just sit home and pray.

Lewis and I were to drive straight from Paris to CARD Headquarters in the village of Blérancourt, where I’d report for duty as the newest recruit of the American Committee for Devastated France, Le Comité américain pour les régions dévastées (CARD). We passed through what used to be a village—cottages blown open, their shutters charred. On the outskirts, a roadside grave—at the head, a helmet on a cross, and standing upright at the base, a rusty bayonet. We inched by so slowly that I had time to read “Unknown soldier, August 1914.”

The scene, so forlorn, called out to me.

“Lewis,” I said, “please pull over.”

In CARD, we called each other by our surnames. When I’d first heard that someone named Lewis was going to be my chauffeur, I pictured a bald man with a monocle, not a sunny brunette Vassar girl. She and I were both in uniform, a horizon-blue jacket and skirt.

Lewis turned the wide steering wheel and maneuvered past debris to a clear patch on the side of the road. At the makeshift grave, we bowed our heads. In New York, street hawkers shouted until they were hoarse; horses nickered as they clopped down Fifth Avenue, milk wagons groaned under the weight of the cream; plump pigeons cooed the conditional language of love; from time to time, a lonely crow cawed. Here there was only an eerie silence.

  • The Librarians of Rue de Picardie - Janet Skeslien Charles

    An inspiring and uplifting novel of courage based on the true story of Jessie Carson, the American librarian who changed the literary landscape of France.

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