Miss Morgan's Book Brigade: A Novel

Image of Miss Morgan's Book Brigade: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 30, 2024
Atria Books
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World War I France is the setting for Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade, a work of historical fiction written by Janet Skeslien Charles.

Revolving around a group of dedicated women who travel to France to help innocent civilians rebuild their lives after the wartime barrage, Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade offers interesting information about the American Committee for Devastated France (CARD.)

Written with parallel timelines, the chapters alternate between 1918 France and 1987 New York City. Wendy Peterson, the contemporary narrator, is an aspiring young writer working at the New York Public Library photographing collections in the basement microfiche center. It is here that she stumbles across a news article about CARD and is instantly fascinated by the organization and its courageous women members, who call themselves the Cards.

The main character, Jessie “Kit” Carson, narrates the story from France in 1918. She is a fictionalized version of the American children’s librarian, Jessie “Kit” Carson (1876–1959), who went to France in 1918 to set up a rural library. Other central characters also use the actual names of the persons they are based on.

There are many characters spread throughout the book, some of them in passing and others presented with more detail. There is considerable time spent on Marcelle, a young French girl who loves reading, and whom Kit takes under her wing. Raised by a mother who is determined that her children be independent, Marcelle appears sophisticated beyond her years. However, her maturity seems somewhat out of place for a teen in pigtails, especially when she imparts wisdom to women much older than herself, as when she says this to Kit:

“I’m sorry that you lost your mother,” she said. “I suppose that the best ones are like mine. Somewhat annoying, forever pushing you to do what you don’t want to do. But gentle, too, like a pillow that softens a thousand blows from this hard life.”

Even in light of the quick and harsh learning curve of war where children might be prematurely forced into adult roles, it’s difficult to imagine a child speaking with such an enlightened voice.

The Cards, no doubt, had deep concern for the victims of war. But the portrayal of Kit as the ultimate Good Samaritan is a bit overdone as she sets out to change the lives of others and trivializes her own losses:

“But what was my loss compared to Sidonie’s? She mourned a husband and a baby. Compared to Madame Moreau’s loss of her husband, leaving her to raise four children alone? Or Madame Petit, in the agony of limbo, she might never learn what happened to her missing daughter Suzanne? Every single villager mourned someone.”

Also somewhat jarring are the dual narratives. Alternating the chapters between 1918 and the 1980s takes the reader out of the heart of the novel . . . which is the experience of the Cards in wartime France. This is a story that could have been told without the distraction of Wendy’s life in New York and her infatuation with one of her co-workers.

Though well-researched, well-written, and with an intriguing backstory, Miss Morgan’s Book Brigade at times feels less like a novel and more like a simple retelling of events. Perhaps if the author had renamed her characters rather than using the names of their real-life counterparts, the people in the book might have taken on a life of their own.