The Librarian of Burned Books is a fantastic work of historical fiction by author Brianna Labuskes. The stories of three women are intertwined in this sweeping World War II era novel. The importance of how books were utilized to fight fascism makes for an unforgettable story that has themes of censorship that are relevant in today.
Viv works at the Council on Books in Wartime in New York in 1944. The organization is made up of volunteers from all across the publishing world. The council partners with the American government to use books in different ways to boost the morale of soldiers fighting abroad, mainly coordinating efforts between the government and publishers to print Armed Services Editions (ASEs) of books to send to the troops.
In 1944, with the presidential election looming, Republicans and Democrats in Congress fought over the details of a new system for tallying the troops’ votes. When the Soldier Voting Bill was finally passed, Republican Senator Robert A. Taft quietly added a sweeping, vaguely worded amendment prohibiting the government from distributing any material that could be considered propaganda. For the military’s Council on Books in Wartime, the amendment was a potential disaster for the popular program. Banning books brought the council uncomfortably close to the Nazi’s vicious censoring of ideas that Americans were supposed to be fighting against.
Each chapter of The Librarian of Burned Books alternates between different years and locations that all have relevance to World War II. When we meet Althea James in 1933, she is an American arriving in Berlin as Hitler becomes Chancellor. Germans are ecstatic. Hitler was seen as a beacon of hope to save them from men who wanted to keep Germany locked in poverty for their own financial gain. They were also mad at the rest of the world who blamed Germany for the Great War. The Germans felt that the rest of the world, “wanted to salt the earth and let Germans die rather than offer compassion.” The book shifts from chapter-to-chapter between Berlin in 1933 when Hitler comes to power after World War I, Paris in 1936 where Hannah Brecht discovers the City of Light is no refuge from the anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathizers she thought she left behind, and New York City in 1944 where we meet Viv who is battling literary censorship laws.
The juxtaposition in these chapters with the imagery of Hitler’s popularity taking off, the Germans rejoicing and Viv formulating a plan to expose the censorship amendment that Taft tacked onto a Soldier Voting Act bill that had become law is chilling because the reader knows both the outcome of Hitler’s reign and the detriment to any society when political desires to have books and independent thought censored ultimately strip citizens of their freedom. Today, we are seeing this happen again with books being banned by the governor of Florida and elected officials creating fervor about election results and capitalizing upon a sector of the middle class, the working class, who feels left behind.
Censorship and the imagery book burning are pivotal scenes in The Librarian of Burned Books. Viv is fighting censorship in America that will directly cause injustice to the soldiers who are fighting for freedom, which will also likely lead to broader censorship among American citizens. The reader is also witnessing Hitler utilize his popularity to swiftly strip away citizen’s rights. There is a heartbreaking scene depicted of the book burning in Berlin in 1933 with Althea and Hannah. The powerful imagery of books burning provides a tangible occurrence of education, freedom and independent thought going up in flames.
Although the characters and their storylines in The Librarian of Burned Books are fictional, the historical events themselves are rooted in reality. Book banning and censorship is still relevant and currently happening in America today. The fictional aspects of The Librarian of Burned Books are heroic, entertaining and heartbreaking. The relevance book banning still occurs today is horrifying.
Read The Librarian of Burned Books because it is a sweeping, beautiful novel. Read it because of the instances of true historic significance. Read it because you have the freedom to do so. A society that is prohibited from reading and exercising independent thought is not truly free. In the words of the nineteenth century Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who in 1822 penned the prophetic words, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”
While reading The Librarian of Burned Books, I enjoyed researching the historical events that take place in the novel. Here are some companion pieces that provide additional background to those events.