Book Review: The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

The Personal Librarian

Author: Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Publisher: Berkley

American release date: June 29, 2021

Format/Genre/Length: Hardback/Historical Fiction/352 pages

Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★★

Reviewer: Julie Lynn Hayes

Sometimes who you know can make all the difference, as Belle da Costa Greene discovers when her friendship with Junius Morgan at  Princeton University leads to her applying for and winning the post of personal librarian to Junius’ father, the famous JP Morgan himself! Morgan is building his personal library and requires the skill and knowledge of a good librarian to assist him in his endeavors. Belle more than fills that bill, and is excited to take an opportunity few women in the early 1900s were ever afforded.

However, unknown to her new employer, or anyone else outside of her family, Belle has a secret, one she must keep in order to maintain her increasingly important position with the millionaire, who has become not only dependent on her talents but fond of her as well. Belle does not appear to be so, but she is black, her real name being Belle Marion Greener. She and her entire family are light-skinned. The family had originally lived in Washington DC near her mother’s family, the Fleets. But Belle’s mother wanted more for her children, a better life than they would have as black people, knowing that they would be able to pass as white. When she wrote their race as white on the census, that was the last straw for Belle’s father, who had been the first black man to graduate from his university and who was a major advocate of civil rights. The family, minus the father, moved to New York, and Belle and her siblings worked hard in order to keep them afloat. This opportunity which had presented itself was a godsend, but there was a price to be paid.

The Personal Librarian was co-written by two women, and it is a treasure trove of a book about the first African American woman to hold a position of such great power and authority at a time when women had few freedoms. But she had to suppress who she was and keep the secret. The research that must have been undertaken for the writing of this book is mindboggling. The authors weave a beautiful tale about a strong woman who lived life on her own terms, loved where she wanted, and was a great influence in shaping JP Morgan’s library but sacrificed her identity to do so.  The writing simply flows, elegant and graceful, much like Belle.

History lovers will enjoy this story, but I think others will too, and Belle’s story deserves to be read by everyone.

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