In “The Paris Library,” Janet Skeslien Charles gives us Odile Souchet, a young French woman who in the winter of 1939 follows her love of literature straight into a position at the American Library in Paris.
Throughout the rest of the novel, we meet the rest of the library staff, the eccentric patrons, and the dangers that they, and Parisians in general, faced during the Nazi occupation. Part of the story is also set in the 1980s in Froid, Montana, where Odile lives after becoming a war bride.
If we read “The Paris Library” from beginning to end, with no peeking at the final pages, we may be shocked when we discover in the Author’s Note that what we assumed was fiction in regard to the American Library actually happened.
The library’s heroic American director, Dorothy Reeder, really did face down intimidating visits from Nazi officials, negotiated an agreement to keep the library operating during the occupation, and remained at her post until 1941.
Her successor, Clara Longworth de Chambrun of Cincinnati, a French countess by marriage, continued the fight. She allowed subscribers into the library even when it was ordered closed, and arranged for the surreptitious hand-delivery of books to patrons, including banned Jewish readers.
As reconstructed by Charles, below the surface of today’s thriving American Library in Paris is a harrowing tale of heroism, nobility of spirit, and the vital importance of literature to liberty and culture.
What to Do With All the Books?“Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux”: “After the darkness of war, the light of books.” From the library's founding, that phrase has served as the motto of the American Library.
In 1920, Congress and the American Library Association joined to issue a charter. Its purpose was to bring together under one roof works for English speakers in France, the best that could be found in American literature, the arts, science, and history.
For more than a century, through political upheavals and financial difficulties, the American Library in Paris has endeavored to meet that goal of housing great and worthy books. It has also served as a gathering place for expatriates and refugees, with many writers and lovers of literature visiting the premises or subscribing to the library’s services.
Edith Wharton was one of its first trustees. Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein contributed to the library’s newsletter, “Ex Libris.” Writers from Thornton Wilder and Stephen Vincent Benét to Mary McCarthy, James Jones, and Irwin Shaw became members. Actress Olivia de Havilland, a longtime resident of Paris, was a library trustee and, until her death in 2020, remained a devoted supporter.
Circumstances forced the library to relocate several times, but since 1964 it has stood on rue du Général Camou, a short walk away from the Eiffel Tower. In the past decade, the building has undergone extensive renovations, which included creating more study spaces, expanding the children’s department, and adding a new façade and a members’ lounge.
A Candle in a Dark TimeThe American Library has done much good for the English-speaking community in Paris and for French-American relations, but it was surely in the days of the Nazi occupation of Paris that its light shone brightest.
The library’s motto “After the darkness of war, the light of books” reflected the hopes of Europeans and Americans that World War I truly would be “the war to end all wars.” When only 20 years later an even greater and more catastrophic war broke out, the library’s motto might well have read “In the darkness of war, the light of books.”
Courage UndauntedIn 2010, as Charles relates in her Author’s Note for “The Paris Library,” she worked as the programs manager for the American Library. There, she first heard the stories about the heroism of the library’s staff during the war.
Even Hermann Fuchs, the German “Library Protector,” is real rather than imagined, and truly did help protect the library against the looting and theft the Nazis had employed elsewhere.
Charles’s broader take on life in Paris during the war brings home the other challenges faced by these people. Parisians often went hungry. German soldiers patrolled the streets, erected barricades to check papers and identity, and made arbitrary arrests. French radio stations were rife with German propaganda.
Some French officials, including police officers, violated their conscience, arresting Jews and others, driving people from their homes and apartments, and obeying Nazi dictates, all the while proclaiming “I’m only doing my job.”
Other Parisians were what the novel’s protagonist Odile Souchet calls “crows,” the men and women who informed on their neighbors to the police for such crimes as listening to BBC radio or reading certain books.
Takeaway ImpressionsHistory may not repeat itself, but the dead can whisper warnings from the grave to the living.
Though “The Paris Library” was drafted just before the COVID-19 crisis, some who read this story will find parallels, however weak, between the fear that Parisians felt living under Nazi rule with its the suppression of truth and treacheries, and the lockdowns, propaganda, and bullying experienced by some Americans during the pandemic.
In the same vein, the novel gives us real people—ordinary people for the most part—who recognized the connections between books and liberty, books and truth, and who did their best to see that those links remained unsevered.
In the last three years, we have seen some Americans, many of whom were censored or fired from their jobs, step forward with suppressed information they regarded as true and with a bearing on our liberties. Like those librarians of Paris, they refused to give way to threats and intimidation.
“A friend said she believes that reading stories set in World War II, people like to ask themselves what they would have done. I think a better question to ask is what can we do now to ensure that libraries and learning are accessible to all and that we treat people with dignity and compassion.”Let us hope that we never lose the courage to match those aspirations.