Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray
I know this is technically the second review I’m posting in 2022, but my New Year’s resolution is to actually try to at least rate and preferably review every book I read. We’ll see how that goes. (Most of them will probably be on my goodreads rather than here though).
That being said, I was really excited for this one, because racial passing is a subject I’ve read a lot about on my own time, ever since I read Nella Larsen’s Passing for a summer course 2 summers ago, and learned more about it as a part of that class. I also read The Vanishing Half earlier this year, which definitely lived up to its reputation. Plus, this book centers around a library. A library. With rare books! Which is actually not too far away from me! And turn of the century historical fiction which I basically never see so… yes I was excited.
I did enjoy this one, especially for focusing on a time period and very interesting individual that I haven’t read too much about. Still to be honest, for a book that centers around a librarian, it really didn’t seem like Belle cared about the books that much, but rather cared more about what they could do for the library/her career. I’m not saying that this was true of the real Belle, but that is how her character seems to be written in this book. The book also just didn’t seem to provide the same level of historical detail that I’ve seen elsewhere. I’m not saying overload with detail, that often doesn’t work well either, but it didn’t hook me in in the same way.
However, what really bothered me was the way that race was discussed in the novel. I haven’t read either of the authors’ previous works, and one of the authors was black, so it was overall fine, but the book seemed to use the word “racism” or “racist” to mean the very overt acts of racism that occurred (like in the historical note it said “she lived in a very racist time” which… that time never really ended). There also seemed to be the suggestion that right after the civil war there was no discrimination at all, which again seemed like word misuse to me. Yes, black people were able to have opportunities that they wouldn’t have had in previous years, which is wonderful, but there was still extreme, rampant, dangerous discrimination in every part of the country. I don’t know why this was talked about like this, but it bothered me.
All of that being said, I really did like finding out about Belle Da Costa Greene as a historical figure who, despite her fame in her time, doesn’t really seem to be a part of the public conscience today. Plus, there do need to be more books written about this topic, and I’m glad it’s getting more recognition. Another thing that made me smile was seeing the book by the professor who had taught the course I had taken in the historical note (there’s absolutely no way she would be reading this, but just in case, hi Professor Hobbs!).
Overall I thought this was a nice read, hence the 3 stars, but I’ve read better historical fiction.
Also this review was supposed to be shorter. Continuing on like this is why it’s so hard to review every book. Oh well.