Marie Benedict is a master writer of historical fiction. She is one of my favorites as she writes historical novels that focus on women. (Marie Benedict is actually a pseudonym used by Heather Terrell.) A list of her novels can be found below at the end of this review.
Her latest published novel, written with Victoria Christopher Murray, is The Personal Librarian. This novel tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, JP Morgan’s personal librarian. Belle grew to be an incredibly important and powerful woman in New York City, despite the fact that she was hiding a secret that had the power to destroy her life and the lives of people in her family.
In her twenties, Belle was hired by J. Pierpont Morgan to curate his massive collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork. He had recently built the Pierpont Morgan Library and needed someone to organize its works. Belle and JP Morgan worked together for years to create a library that would hold up to his legacy. She traveled the world and became known for her impeccable taste, as well as her shrewd and unique ways to negotiate for works that both Morgan and Belle wanted to add to their world-class collection.
Belle had a major secret though. She is actually Belle Marion Greener, the daughter of Richard Greener, who was the first Black graduate of Harvard and was a well-known advocate for equality. Belle instead passes as white, by saying that she has Portuguese heritage. She doesn’t have Portuguese heritage though, as Belle is African American. Her mother’s decision to have her family pass as white tore her marriage apart, wreaking havoc on the small semblance of normalcy that they had created for their family.
The Personal Librarian tells the story of Belle, a woman well known for her intellect and style, but whose secret led her to carefully craft the white identity that let her have the lifestyle she desired. She spent her life walking a tightrope that could have snapped at any moment. Belle’s legacy lives on in this novel created by Benedict and Murray.
This book is also available in the following formats:
Marie Benedict’s other novels are listed below as well as who they are about:
- The Other Einstein – Mileva Maric, Albert Einstein’s first wife, a woman who was a physicist
- Carnegie’s Maid – Clara Kelley, lady’s maid in Andrew Carnegie’s household
- The Only Woman in the Room – Hedy Lamarr: inventor, screen star, and scientist
- Lady Clementine – Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife
- The Mystery of Mrs. Christie – Agatha Christie’s mysterious eleven day disappearance in 1926
- Her Hidden Genius – to be published in January 2022, which tells the story of British scientist Rosalind Franklin who discovered the structure of DNA. Her research was used without her permission by Crick & Watson to win the Nobel Prize.
Family and relationships are a major deciding factor in how a person turns out. Our past influences our desires and the decisions we will make in the future. Brit Bennett discusses how we choose our own fate and how that fate may be different than the ones our families had previously thought we would take.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett tells the story of the Vignes twin sisters. Growing up, the two were inseparable and identical. People in the community found it hard to tell the two apart, but knew that wherever they saw one, the other was not far behind. Living in a small, southern black community with rigid ideals, the Vignes sisters run away at age sixteen to escape the less than perfect notions the community had about who they should be. Struggling to make out a new life for themselves, one twin makes the difficult decision to leave the other behind. Her decision sets the family on a rocky path that none of them could have predicted.
The Vignes sisters’ life decisions at the age of sixteen shape their daily lives for years. As adults, their lives couldn’t be more different. Their families, their racial identities, and their communities know them as separate individuals with vastly different pasts.
Fast forward many years and one of the sisters has come back to her hometown with her daughter. Separated by states, the other sister has been secretly passing as white for many years and her white husband doesn’t know anything about her past. Even though the twins are living vastly different lives, their fates are still intricately connected.
This novel follows the Vignes twin sisters from the 1950s to the 1990s, spanning many areas across the country from the Deep South to California. As the twins grow, many generations of the Vignes family come alive to tell their tales. Both the older generation and the younger generation work to create lives that they can be proud of with the sisters sandwiched in between. When the twins’ daughters grow up, their lives are bound to cross. The delicate life balance full of truth and lies the sisters have created is destined to come crashing down at some point. It’s only a matter of time.
This book is also available in the following formats:
As African-American History Month draws to a close and Women’s History Month begins, celebrate both by discovering these turn-of-the-twentieth-century African-American women activists on your library’s shelves:
Journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) first spoke out against the lynching of blacks in the South from the pages of her own Memphis, Tennessee newspaper. This act began her fierce campaign to end the injustice through her lectures and writings. On Lynchings collects three of her influential publications on the subject.
In her 1940 autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) describes her career as a speaker dedicated to advancing the causes of civil rights and women’s suffrage.
Historian Mary Frances Berry rescues Callie House (1861–1928) from obscurity in My Face is Black is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations. Founder of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, House began a grass-roots movement calling for Congress to compensate former slaves for the labor they performed during centuries of captivity.
Explore the lives of other remarkable African-American women with Biography in Context. This online database conveniently gathers information from reference works, academic publications, newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts, websites, and other sources to create”media-rich” profiles of historical figures, writers, artists, celebrities, and other prominent individuals.
The neverending debate of “which is better, the book or the movie?” continues with the recent release of the movie The Help. Based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel, the movie has a lot to live up to.
Published in 2009, The Help received excellent reviews but started off fairly quietly. It soon became a sleeper hit – it’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for over 100 weeks and is easily the most requested title at the library these days.
The novel is told from the the point-of-view of three narrators relating the story of African-American maids working for white families in the Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. The characters are real and complex, their stories are heartbreaking and funny, and the dangers they face are life threatening. I read the book before it really took off and blogged about it here. It’s still one of my favorite books.
The movie opened just last week and stars Viola Davis, Emma Stone and Octavia Spencer. There has been a fair amount of controversy about the making of this movie – Stockett’s longtime best friend Tate Taylor adapted and directed the film, even though he has directed only a couple of small films previously; there was talk that he wouldn’t be able to handle a big, important movie. Never fear, the movie is beautifully done with several Oscar-worthy performances, and settings that transport you to the Deep South of the 1960s. Just like the book, you’ll laugh and cry and be inspired by these courageous women. (Although the movie is several months from coming out on DVD, you can be assured that the Davenport Library will purchase multiple copies when it’s available!)
My recommendation? Read the book AND see the movie.