The War Librarian follows the narration between two women: Emmaline a librarian during WWI and Kathleen a new Naval Academy plebe in 1976. . Emmaline is one of the first war librarians to serve overseas in France. She works at a hospital, helping the men relieve their boredom as they heal from their war injuries. While she is working, she notices the discrepancies between the treatment of the White soldiers and the Black soldiers. She tries to bring the men together, but in her attempt, she finds that not every soldier views every soldier as equal. On top of that, she is handed a list of banned books that she must burn if they arrive at her library or face a court martial for sedition. Kathleen, the granddaughter of a Red Cross Corps driver in WWI, is entering the Naval Academy in the first class of female recruits. She is excited to join the illustrious world of the Navy, but her time in the academy is far from pleasant. The male plebes spend their time harassing and physically assaulting the women while the brass looks the other way. On top of that, Kathleen befriends a Black, male plebe, and that opens up new threats for both Kathleen and Derrick as the other students believe they have entered into a romantic relationship. Kathleen tries to press on, but she soon learns that she will need the help of her fellow female plebes to survive her first year. The story weaves between the struggle of these two women as they face adversity about their sex and come face to face with racism, propaganda, and their patriotism is come under question.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, I found the women engaging and the plot very enthralling. I liked Armstrong's last book, The Light of Luna Park, but I feel that she wrote a more engaging piece with this book.
I think the only thing that held me back from completely loving the story was the constant violence against women, especially at the Naval Academy. I know that this is reality for many women, I myself have experienced this, but it made reading the book just emotionally draining. I think that one's headspace is very integral to how we read, and maybe I was not in the right headspace to read this book at this time. Maybe down the road I will pick this book back up and find it motivating rather than draining.
I do think that many women will feel connection to the characters of this book. I think it will make a great book club read since it does confront issues still relevant in our society such as discrimination, racism, and censorship. As more libraries have publicly announced that they want to hold book burning events, Armstrong's book demonstrates the need to stand firm for our freedom of speech and our freedom to engage with ideas that not everyone agrees with. This is an important book to read, but be warned that the violence can becomes a bit much for people.