The Personal Librarian

Written by Marie Benedict Victoria Christopher Murray
Review by Trish MacEnulty

Marie Benedict’s historical novels have been entertaining and educating historical fiction readers for years, and award-winning author Victoria Christopher Murray has penned more than thirty novels, many of them bestsellers. These two well-regarded writers have joined forces to tell the important and timely story of J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian, an African American woman who passes as a white woman in order to fulfill her potential.

Belle da Costa Greene is actually Belle Marion Greener. Her mother wants her five children to have all the opportunities that white children have in the early 20th century, so she lies to the census taker, listing herself and her children as white and changes Belle’s name. Belle’s adored and adoring father—an ardent activist for Black empowerment—is enraged by his wife’s determination to hide her identity and leaves the family to fend for themselves. When Belle is hired by J. P. Morgan to maintain and develop his collection of rare books, she is given the opportunity of a lifetime. While negotiating with “murderous skill” in a variety of sumptuous settings, she must also protect her family secret at all costs.

This is a fabulous story about a woman who took her destiny into her own hands and found respect, power, and love. She lived her life with boldness and panache. The writing is terrific and feels deeply authentic thanks to Benedict’s partnership with Murray, whose own grandmother also sometimes had to pass for white to survive. There are those who might fault Greene for the choices she made, but Murray and Benedict help us to understand and admire her. In these strange and troubled times, we need these reminders of resourcefulness and courage in the face of intractable racism.