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Dubuque County Reads: The Personal Librarian



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Book Summary



The remarkable, little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan's personal librarian-who became one of the most powerful women in New York despite the dangerous secret she kept in order to make her dreams come true, from New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict and acclaimed author Victoria Christopher Murray. In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. Pierpont Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture on the New York society scene and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps build a world-class collection. But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and well-known advocate for equality. Belle's complexion isn't dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as white-her complexion is dark because she is African American.

The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths she must go-for the protection of her family and her legacy-to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives  

Other Books by the authors

For more on passing

A play written by Peggy Jackson, and produced in Dubuque at First Baptist Church as part of their 18th Annual Walk Through Black History.

An interview with the writer and an actress from Hidden In Plain Sight.

Discussion Questions from Penguin Random House

Discussion Questions from Penguin Random House

  1. How might you explain Belle’s rise to such breathtaking heights in society and her profession at a time when women—especially African American women—faced such blatant discrimination and exclusion? Did Belle possess certain personality traits that yielded this incredible outcome? If so, what are they? What sorts of outside influences contributed to her ascent?
  2. In some ways, Belle’s parents had somewhat unique experiences or backgrounds for African American people during this time period. What kind of reaction did you have to her parents’ histories? How might those histories have impacted Belle, even when she had not been told the details of her parents’ pasts?
  3. How did you view Belle’s relationship with her mother? Do you think Belle resented her mother, or did their relationship change over the course of the book such that they came to a place of understanding? If so, what was Belle’s turning point with her mother?
  4. How would you describe Belle’s position among her siblings? How did you feel about her relationship with them and her responsibilities to them?
  5. What sort of reaction did you have to Belle’s relationship with her father? Do you think Belle ever felt deserted by her father in the same way her siblings did? Why or why not?
  6. What sort of pressure do you think Belle might have experienced from the rumors about her true ethnicity? Do you think J. P. Morgan heard the rumors? Do you think he knew she was passing as white and decided to ignore it, or do you think he was unaware of her heritage?
  7. What do you think really happened romantically between Belle and J. P. Morgan? Do you agree with the portrayal in the book?
  8. How would you describe the attraction between Belle and Bernard Berenson? What were the attributes that drew them together and, ultimately, forced them apart? How did you feel about their relationship—and Belle’s ability to have a partner and family of her own?
  9. What surprised you the most about Belle’s life? About her time period?
  10. How familiar were you with passing before reading this novel? Has your understanding of the reasons and sacrifices behind it altered after reading about Belle’s life?
  11. What sacrifices did Belle make by choosing to follow her mother’s path? What advantages did she gain?
  12. Before reading this book, were you familiar with the Civil Rights Act of 1875 or the efforts toward equality that occurred during Reconstruction? Did you have any understanding of what transpired in the years after Reconstruction? What might have happened in the United States in the decades that followed if the Civil Rights Act of 1875—along with the many efforts at equality that occurred during Reconstruction—had not been overturned?
  13. How do the racial issues and events in the book relate to events happening today?
  14. In the end, do you think Belle was happy with her choices and decisions? Do you think she would have done anything differently?

Discussion Questions from The Book Girls' Guide

  1. While doing research for the book, co-author Victoria Christopher Murray learned that Greene’s mother didn’t want them to pass so they could be white, but rather she wanted to pass so they could be equal. Murray said in an interview with Good Morning America that passing “is not something that is accepted in the African American community,” but she hopes that this book will help people understand the reason.
  2. How do you feel about the decision Belle’s mother made for the children to pass as white?
  3. Passing as white afforded Belle her career as J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian. However, it also required many sacrifices. Discuss whether you think passing made her more free or less free.
  4. In Belle’s position, she occasionally encounters Black servants working at high-society events around NYC. Were you surprised by how she handled those encounters?
  5. J.P. Morgan’s daughter, Anne, had suspicions about Belle. Discuss whether you thought Anne would tell her father. Do you think Anne was more aware someone else could be hiding their true identity because she was hiding a major part of herself?
  6. After the passing of J.P. Morgan, Belle reconnects with her father. Were you surprised she sought out that missing aspect of her life? How do you think he felt about her success and what she gave up to achieve it?
  7. “Being a woman, I know that I must do my job twice as well as any man to be thought half as good.” Regardless of race, Belle’s position was unheard of for a woman in her time. Discuss how her gender impacted her career.
  8. Do you think that J.P. Morgan ever knew or suspected Belle’s true identity?
  9. Wealth disparity is evident in the book between the Morgan and Greene families. Discuss how this aspect of the story made you feel as you read.
  10. The Morgan Library collected rare Caxton edition books. Does anyone in the group enjoy collecting first editions of either contemporary or classic novels?
  11. At the end of her life, Belle destroyed all of her correspondence. Why do you think she did this? Whose legacy was she trying to protect – hers, her family’s, or that of the Morgan Library?