A Montana native has released her new novel, based on the real life of an American librarian who helped modernize French libraries during World War I.

A Montana native has released her new novel, based on the real life of an American librarian who helped modernize French libraries during World War I.

Janet Skeslien Charles, author of the New York Times bestseller “The Paris Library,” turns the page on a little-known chapter of history in her new novel, “Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade.”

In 1918, Jessie Carson, a courageous American librarian, arrives in war-torn France to be tasked with reestablishing library services by the American Committee for Devastated France, a volunteer civilian relief organization of brave women headquartered less than 40 miles from the front lines of World War I.

What Carson has accomplished is revolutionizing France’s library system.

By 1987, librarian and aspiring writer Wendy Peterson came across Carson’s name in the New York Public Library archives and “became preoccupied with learning his fate.”

“In his obsessive search, he discovers that he and the elusive librarian have more in common than just their jobs at New York’s famous library, but he doesn’t know that their paths will intersect in surprising ways.”

Like her character Wendy Peterson, Skeslien Charles, a Shelby, Montana native living in Paris, came across Carson’s name while perusing the library archives.

“I was seeing references in the archives to the Paris Library School, and Jessie Larson’s name was mentioned,” he said.

The point the author draws attention to in Carson’s life is that, unlike his colleagues in the charity organization, he did not come from a rich or wealthy family, and that he accomplished great things that had not been done before.

“Jessie Carson came from a more modest background and was working,” Skeslien Charles said. “She had no money, no resources, no safety net, and yet she went to France. It was brave of her.”

Skeslien Charles will be in Kalispell for a book signing on July 16.

The American Committee for the Devastated France, or Comité Américain pour les Régions Dévastées de France (better known as CARD), was founded by philanthropist Anne Morgan, daughter of wealthy financier and investment banker J.P. Morgan, and her friend Anne Murray Dike.

Skeslien Charles said the pair had set up a group of 350 women to help France rebuild its war-torn villages and communities, and occasionally helped people evacuate when bombs began to fall.

Rebuilding meant placing and training women in positions previously dominated by men, such as librarians. In addition to training the first French female librarians, Carson is credited with starting children’s libraries and converting ambulances and trains into book carts.

“It was really unusual in that it was almost entirely female,” she said of the school that trained librarians, noting that it was nicknamed the “Wild West Library School.”

Thanks to Carson’s work, the doors of French libraries, which had been accessible almost exclusively to academics and researchers, were opened to children and the public.

“He completely changed the literary landscape of France and made reading accessible to all social classes,” Skeslien Charles said.

The open shelf concept was also implemented in the library.

“At the time, it seemed so revolutionary to have open shelves where you could walk in and pick out a book,” she said. “Back then, you’d stand behind a railing and a librarian would go in the back and pick up the books and bring them to you.”

Skeslien Charles worked on Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade and The Paris Library simultaneously. When she hit a wall while writing or researching one novel, she would work on the other.

The historically grounded fiction represents years of research and travel, including trips to the Morgan Museum in New York to read undigitized documents, letters, and photographs. She also walked the path once walked by CARD women at the Château de Blérancourt, which serves as the organization’s headquarters, where she read letters from volunteers.

“It was very interesting to see the original documents,” he said.

It was difficult to get a glimpse into Carson’s personal life. Outside of her business correspondence, not much was available compared to women of Morgan’s status.

“Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade is something that a person without a lot of money could do,” Skeslien Charles said. “She gave everything she could. All her time, all her effort. All her knowledge.”

When asked what she hoped readers of “Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade” would take away from this, she said, “Even one person can make a difference.”

Skeslien Charles said that when deciding to divide the library trilogy books into historical fiction and nonfiction, it depended on the availability of source material to learn from.

“I had to do some guesswork to flesh out his character,” Skeslien Charles said. “You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

But after “Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade” was published, she said, a reader, Gail Baden, contacted her about a document. Baden said she was a descendant of one of the CARD volunteers.

“He bought a letter that Jessie had written to her mother, which was something personal, not a business report,” Skeslien Charles said.

“It was incredible to see the letter. I guessed right, if you want to put it that way, about his motivations, his finances, his feelings and his hopes,” Skeslien Charles said.

At a time when American libraries have become the center of a culture war, Skeslien Charles hopes people will remember the value that libraries and librarians provide to communities.

“I think libraries and our freedom to read and to think are under fire,” she said. “They’re really one of the only places where people can go and enjoy themselves for free,” she said.

She is currently working on the third novel in her library trilogy. In addition to writing, Skeslien Charles has taught English as a second language at the high school level in Odessa, Ukraine, and in France, where she moved in 1998 and eventually met her husband. In 2010 and 2012, she took a break from writing to work part-time at the American Library in Paris. This experience inspired her to write The Library of Paris.

Skeslien Charles will be in Kalispell for a book signing event at Hooper’s Garden Center, 2205 Montana 35 E., Kalispell, on July 16 from 4 to 6 p.m. Copies of both books will be available for sale.

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Reporter Hilary Matheson can be reached at 758-4431 or [email protected].

If you go

Who: Janet Skeslien Charles, author of “The Paris Library” and “Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade.”

What: Book signing. Light refreshments will be served.

When: Tuesday, July 16th from 16:00 to 18:00.

Where: Hooper’s Garden Center, 2205 Montana 35 E., Kalispell.

Janet Skeslien Charles’s novel “Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade” is based on the real life of Jessie Carson, an American librarian who played a key role in establishing children’s libraries in France during World War I. It is the last in a “library trilogy” by the “New York Times” bestselling author of “The Paris Library.” Copies of the books will be available at a book signing scheduled for Tuesday, July 16 at Hooper’s Garden Center. (Courtesy image)