Author Janet Skeslien Charles worked as the programs manager for the American Library in Paris. Photo: Richard Beban
> Writer's Room
Janet Skelsien Charles on the Canadian connection behind her historical novel ‘The Paris Library’
In this essay, the writer, who splits her time between Paris and Montana, recounts the real-life events that inspired the book / BY Janet Skeslien Charles / April 22nd, 2021
Bonjour de Paris! I’m the author of The Paris Library, which recounts the true tale of an international team of librarians during the Second World War. Researching libraries in Paris was fascinating, and I’m excited to share the behind-the-scenes Canadian connections with you.
Under the German Occupation, Jewish people were stripped of their rights and could no longer work in many professions. They did not have the right to enter parks or libraries. Now, we realize that Jewish people were in tremendous danger.
At the time, librarians defied the Nazis in order to hand-deliver books to Jewish readers. It was a dangerous mission and one of the librarians was shot by the Gestapo. I learned about this story when I became the programs manager at the American Library in Paris. I knew it was a novel, and sat down to write it.
In a key scene at the beginning of the book, Evangeline Turnbull, a real-life Canadian cataloguer, convinces my main character not to give up her dream of working in a library. Evangeline and her daughter Olivia both worked at the American Library in Paris. I love the thought of this mother-daughter team. In these difficult days, I’m heartened by their courage and their dedication to readers.
Three days after the Second World War was declared, the ALP created the Soldiers’ Service, which sent 100,000 books to Allied soldiers from September 1939 to May 1940. When the Germans got close to Paris, Evangeline and Olivia Turnbull were urged to leave. Canadian, and thus British subjects, they could have been arrested as enemy aliens. When she returned to Canada, Evangeline wrote: “My life has been bound up with our Library for the ten years I have been in Paris … through many lean days and times more hopeful and cheering that I cannot give up hope of returning to my work there some day.”
My research on the Turnbulls led to … hockey. Curious about Evangeline’s husband, I learned that the couple married in Brandon, Man., in 1915. Captain Walter James “Ollie” Turnbull was killed during the First World War when he was only 25 years old. The Turnbull Memorial Trophy, named in his honour, is awarded to the champions of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. All three Turnbulls spent time in France during world wars and were devoted to their causes. I wish I could have included more of their story in The Paris Library.
Today, Paris has a vibrant book scene and the Canadian connection to the library remains strong. Many books for its collection come from The Red Wheelbarrow, the Canadian bookshop located across from the Luxembourg Garden. As the programs manager, one of my joys was to chat with Penelope Fletcher, originally from Hornby Island, B.C., who, until lockdown, supplied books for weekly author readings and book signings.
I love libraries and bookshops. I thank the dedicated, hard-working booksellers and librarians who create literary havens for us book lovers. They’re especially important now during these difficult days. Happy reading! Bonne lecture!
The Paris Library was published Feb. 2 by Simon & Schuster