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The War Librarian

by Addison Armstrong

The War Librarian by Addison Armstrong X
The War Librarian by Addison Armstrong
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    Aug 2022, 384 pages


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Jordan Lynch
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Chapter 1
Emmaline Balakin
September 1918

I stood stiffly at the ship's railing and watched New Jersey recede into the distance: the smokestacks puffing, the ships docked at the Hoboken wharf, the industrial warehouses stacked high as the USS Aeolus's mast. I could no longer make out the shapes of the people on land, but I knew they were there. Only a half hour ago, I'd looked down from this very spot and watched soldiers and sailors scurrying around the dockyards. Only half an hour before that, I'd sat in a motorcar and looked out at a silent town of women and children.

I'd grown used to the sight of wives without husbands and children without fathers. And I'd grown used to being alone. The anonymous gray shoreline now seemed a reflection of my own flat and gloomy half-life—I didn't know whether leaving would be the beginning of my story or the end of it.

I fingered Nicholas's letter in my pocket like a talisman and prayed this journey would be not just a blip in my life but the beginning of a new one. After twenty-three years of living in black and white, I deserved something different.

Or did I? Perhaps I had no one to blame but myself. No one had forced me into the shadows; no one had told me I'd be safer in a stack of books than in the real world. But I'd learned it nonetheless. When my mother was killed in a streetcar accident in my fourteenth year, my father retreated into books and I followed. Though he sent me off to boarding school when I was fifteen in the hopes that I would benefit from being around other women, he joined my mother in heaven after a heart attack just a year later, and I became the only student to stay at school through the holidays and the summer. Alone for long stretches of time, I turned back to my old comfort, books my most constant friends and solace.

After I finished boarding school, I got a job at the Dead Letter Office, where I could continue to use words as a shield against real life. But now, five years later, I was sailing away from the only place I'd ever known. Just like Mama and Papa had twenty-three years earlier.

My parents left Russia for the noblest of reasons. As professionals in St. Petersburg, they'd waged a quiet battle against Czar Alexander III's censorship, lending out their own copies of forbidden books and ignoring the government threats—until they learned I was on the way. They'd been willing to risk their own lives, but not mine, and so they packed up and left their homeland so that their child could be raised in a world of intellectual freedom. They used the money they'd been able to take from Russia to purchase a townhouse in Washington, D.C., and my mother had quickly become the center of the city's Russian community. But it all fell apart when she died.

My mother had lived a colorful life, and that was what I wanted to do now. I was tired of being forgettable, invisible Emmaline: the girl who handled dead letters about more interesting lives than her own.

I pulled myself away from the ship's railing. If I was going to embark on a new life, I had to stop gazing backward into the past; I didn't have to watch the shoreline until it receded.

My feet slid on the deck as the ship roiled, but I didn't fall. I took one ginger step at a time, finding my footing, as I explored the place that would be my home for the next two weeks. I couldn't pretend I liked it. The USS Aeolus had been seized from Germany's luxury cruise line months ago, but the Germans had ransacked her beforehand. The ship was a metal beast, hulking in size, and the floral wallpaper that peeked through in spots as a reminder of its past life only made it eerier. The razzle-dazzle war paint on deck, zigzagging black and white lines that crashed and intercepted at seemingly random intervals, dizzied me. I supposed that was the point. The camouflage didn't aid the ship in blending in; it simply disoriented the enemy so they couldn't grasp the size, speed, or direction of the ship.

Excerpted from The War Librarian by Addison Armstrong. Copyright © 2022 by Addison Armstrong. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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