What could a woman, who spent her childhood on the plains of rural Montana, know about war brides and Paris? It might surprise you, but actually, a lot! Janet Skeslien Charles, a Shelby native who has traveled far beyond her hometown roots, just released her second published novel, The Paris Library.
“You could say that I started thinking about the story when I was 10-years-old,” said Charles. “I was first inspired by my neighbor, Claudine Mainard, who was a war bride from Rouen, not far from the D-Day beaches of Normandy. She made English sound so beautiful with her lilting French accent. I think many people in Shelby remember her.”
She added, “Even as a child, I understood how brave she was to leave her family, friends, country and even her language, behind. I knew I wanted to write about a war bride.”
A story that had drifted in and out of her mind for years, the book actually took about 10 years for her to write and get published. It had been slated to come out in June of 2020, but Covid pushed that release date back to February of 2021. Not only did it push the release date back, it cancelled her 10-city tour and being able to come home to Shelby to promote her latest accomplishment. But thanks to technology, Charles was able to promote it via the Internet.
“I had a 10-city tour planned, but did many events on Zoom and had a great time,” she said.
The book was released on Feb. 9 and is currently available at the Prairie Peddler, as well as other bookstores. Her first novel, Moonlight in Odessa, a story about an email bride, is also available for purchase.
The Paris Library takes place in Montana during the Cold War, as well as in Paris during World War II. Charles loves to read, something that serves her well as she was able to research life during those days in books and stories from that era. Working at the American Library in Paris was when she first learned of an incredibly true story, one that she found impossible to imagine but one she knew she wanted to tell.
“Reading is my passion. I can’t imagine not having access to books, yet this is exactly what happened to Jewish readers in France during World War II,” said Charles. “During the Nazi Occupation, Jewish people were stripped of their rights. They could no longer work in many professions. They did not have the right to enter parks or libraries. Now, we know that they were in tremendous danger, one-quarter of France’s Jewish population was killed. At the time, librarians reached out to Jewish readers to make sure that they remained a part of the community. My novel, The Paris Library, tells the true tale of the international team of librarians who defied the Nazis in order to hand-deliver books to Jewish readers.”
While the story of warrior librarians stealthily delivering books definitely inspired the story, growing up in Shelby and the residents here also play a huge part in the stories she tells.
“I was inspired by my hometown of Shelby and its residents,” said Charles. “My characters, Odile and Lily, live in Froid, Mont. Sammie and Steve Hurtig first told me about this town, which is located near Wolf Point. I love the name because it means ‘cold’ in French. I liked that a Parisienne lived in a Montanan town with a French name.”
Charles feels very lucky to have grown up in Shelby and hopes the readers can feel her love for her hometown through her descriptions of everything, from the landscape to the caring people in the character’s life.
“Readers might recognize some familiar names,” she said. “I was remembering the kindness of a local doctor and one of my former bosses and the wonderful teachers I had.”
Charles has lived in Paris since 2000 and is a teacher, which allows her to travel home to visit during the summer, up until the Covid pandemic. She is looking forward to coming home to visit once traveling is safe again to visit family and friends and relax in the more laid back, less rushed environment. Charles explained that for her, living in Paris compared to Shelby wasn’t so much a culture shock about differences between France and the United States, but that of small town versus big city.
“It took me a long time to get used to how expensive everything is in Paris and how Parisians are always in a rush,” said Charles. “For Shelby, I think the big draw is nature. I love going for a walk, the air smells so good. I love seeing deer and rabbits and birds. My dad and husband love to golf at the beautiful course. In Paris, the museums and restaurants are a big draw.”
Believe it or not, there are some similarities between the two. Charles shared that going to the Prairie Peddler to enjoy a latte is comparable to enjoying a coffee at a cafe in Paris.
“In both places, people love to gather to visit. Covid makes us appreciate being together even more,” said Charles.
Growing up in Shelby in the 1980s has been a key factor in her decision to be a writer. Entertaining herself, through her imagination and stories she would create in her mind, has been a talent she has been honing since she was a child.
“Those of us who grew up in Shelby in the 1980s learned how to entertain ourselves and to use our imaginations. This really helped me as a writer, because I was always reading and daydreaming and imagining stories,” Charles explained. “I think my writing style is straightforward and simple. I hope the narration in The Paris Library feels like I am talking to the reader. Two of my favorite memories are presenting my book at the Prairie Peddler and the Lutheran church. It felt great to have the support of the whole community.”
Even though Charles was unable to come and share her latest novel and success with the community she grew up in and loves, those here are able to enjoy her latest creation by stopping by the Prairie Peddler and picking up a copy. She may not be able to come home now to discuss her latest book, but the day is coming when she will return and can be found enjoying a latte at the Prairie Peddler, ready to visit with any and all about her novel.
Until then she is patiently waiting and keeping herself busy researching an American librarian in France during World War I, who worked just a few miles from the front, something that is sure to be spun into yet another fabulous tale, based on truth but told in fantastic fashion in only a way Charles can tell it.