Janet Skeslien Charles is the award-winning author of Moonlight in Odessa and The Paris Library. She divides her time between Montana and Paris. Visit her at JSkeslienCharles.com or connect with her on Twitter @SkeslienCharles.
I write to you from Paris, from the mezzanine of the Red Wheelbarrow bookstore. The view before me is of bookshelves dappled by sunbeams as well as the Luxembourg Gardens across the street. Here in France, two historical names loom large: Josephine and her husband, Napoleon. When I picked up Carolina Built, whose main character is Josephine Napoleon Leary, I knew this novel was for me.
Beginning in North Carolina just years after the Civil War, the book recounts the life of a real estate magnate whose goal was to build a lasting legacy for herself and her daughters. It is the true story of a woman born into slavery and freed at the age of nine, who dreams big and educates herself to become a businesswoman. Josephine Leary owned several properties in Edenton, North Carolina, and one of the buildings she constructed still exists and bears her name. Carolina Built delicately portrays the challenges that those who were formerly enslaved face as they build their lives, both personally and professionally.
From the first page, I felt that Josephine was a kindred spirit, or as my character Bitsi (in The Paris Library) would say, a book mate. Josephine’s grandmother tells her, “You get so wrapped up in those books, nobody can reach you.” Later, Josephine says, “I love to read about different times and different places, and all the lives that people can live.” And this is what I appreciated most about Carolina Built: we walk in the shoes of the characters. In the course of buying a piece of land, Josephine Leary must deal with a lawyer who had volunteered to fight for the Confederate Army. How must that feel to her?
This is what the best literature does: with quiet simplicity it asks us to consider the lives of others, to feel what they feel. Carolina Built inspires me as a writer, and reminds me of the importance of writing about women forgotten by history. Author Kianna Alexander says it best: “The accomplishments of African Americans have so often been minimized, overlooked, or outright dismissed to serve a narrative that relegates us to the status of second-class citizenship.” In her words, she decided to “shine a light on someone who would otherwise be forgotten by history.”
What also struck me was the timeliness of this novel. Josephine Leary balanced raising her children, taking care of her grandmother, working with her husband at their barbershop, and her passion for real estate. She felt like there was never enough time in the day. She dealt with prejudice from the church and from the townspeople. She was judged by some in her entourage for not staying home more with her children. She was criticized for wanting something that was hers alone.
Though Josephine Leary lived from 1856 to 1923, much of her experience resonates with contemporary readers, whether it’s her trials as a businesswoman, her love of books, or her bittersweet joy in preparing her firstborn child to leave home for college. I finished the book in awe of this remarkable woman.
Emperor Napoleon famously said, “I win battles, but Josephine wins hearts.”* I believe Josephine Napoleon Leary will win your heart.
*Exact phrase in French: “Je gagne des batailles, Joséphine gagne les cœurs.”