This historical fiction novel is set in the early 1900’s, where the main character, Belle, is starting her career as a librarian of rare books at Princeton University. Belle has to be very careful, as she is creating a new identity for herself, as Belle de Costa Greene, a white woman, different from her born identity, Belle Greener, a light skinned African American.
Belle is the daughter of a renowned African-American civil rights advocate and scholar, Richard Greener. She was born and raised in Washington D.C., with her mother’s locally prominent family, the Fleets. As a child, Belle’s father fosters in her a love of art and art history, through museums and books.
Belle’s family moves to NYC for her father’s work. During that time, her parents grow apart due to the direction her mother wants to move; to pose as a white family. Her father leaves the family over this decision. He explains how it goes against all that he stands for and has worked for. The family has to make ends meet with the money Belle’s sisters make as teachers. Belle’s mother expects her to follow the footsteps of her siblings in becoming a teacher, but Belle decides to break away when she is presented with the opportunity to work at the Princeton University Library. There she establishes a network and makes a great impression with the nephew of J.P. Morgan, Junius, who is looking to hire a librarian/curator for his growing personal library. With Junius’ recommendation, Belle lands an interview and the position that will seal her status and society as one of the most influential and successful women of her time.
This novel depicts the struggles that African Americans were faced with in the early 1900’s. For Belle, the decision to present herself as a white woman, with Spanish roots, was the only way to achieve her dream of becoming a librarian and curator. Her story is remarkable, her amazing courage and convictions are a pleasure to read in this well told narrative.