A Sweeping Historical Novel About One Remarkable Woman 

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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.

Carolina Built
by Kianna Alexander

Josephine N. Leary is determined to build a life of her own and a future for her family. When she moves to Edenton, North Carolina from the plantation where she was born, she is free, newly married, and ready to follow her dreams. As the demands of life pull Josephine’s attention away, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to pursue her real estate aspirations. She finds herself immersed in deepening her marriage, mothering her daughters, and being a dutiful daughter and granddaughter. Still, she manages to teach herself to be a businesswoman, to manage her finances, and to make smart investments in the local real estate market. But with each passing year, it grows more and more difficult to focus on building her legacy from the ground up. “Filled with passion and perseverance, Josephine Leary is frankly a woman that everyone should know” (Sadeqa Johnson, author of Yellow Wife) and her story speaks to the part of us that dares to dream bigger, tear down whatever stands in our way, and build something better for the loved ones we leave behind.

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Carolina Built
Kianna Alexander

A vivid and moving novel based on the incredible life of real estate magnate Josephine N. Leary—a previously untold story of passion, perseverance, and building a legacy after emancipation in North Carolina.

Josephine N. Leary is determined to build a life of her own and a future for her family. When she moves to Edenton, North Carolina from the plantation where she was born, she is free, newly married, and ready to follow her dreams.

As the demands of life pull Josephine’s attention—deepening her marriage, mothering her daughters, supporting her grandmother—she struggles to balance her real estate aspirations with the realities of keeping life going every day. She teaches herself to be a business woman, to manage her finances, and to make smart investments in the local real estate market. But with each passing year, it grows more and more difficult to focus on building her legacy from the ground up.

Moving and inspiring, Josephine Leary’s untold story speaks to the part of us that dares to dream bigger, tear down whatever stands in our way, and build something better for the loved ones we leave behind.

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The Paris Library
by Janet Skeslien Charles

The Paris Library is in paperback now!

An instant New York Times, Washington Post, and USA TODAY bestseller—based on the true story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris during World War II—The Paris Library is a moving and unforgettable “ode to the importance of libraries, books, and the human connections we find within both” (Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author).

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo iTunes logo Indiebound logo Kobo logo Kindle logo Bookshop logo Libro.fm logo
The Paris Library
Janet Skeslien Charles

An instant New York Times, Washington Post, and USA TODAY bestseller—based on the true story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris during World War II—The Paris Library is a moving and unforgettable “ode to the importance of libraries, books, and the human connections we find within both” (Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author).

Paris, 1939: Young and ambitious Odile Souchet seems to have the perfect life with her handsome police officer beau and a dream job at the American Library in Paris. When the Nazis march into the city, Odile stands to lose everything she holds dear, including her beloved library. Together with her fellow librarians, Odile joins the Resistance with the best weapons she has: books. But when the war finally ends, instead of freedom, Odile tastes the bitter sting of unspeakable betrayal.

Montana, 1983: Lily is a lonely teenager looking for adventure in small-town Montana. Her interest is piqued by her solitary, elderly neighbor. As Lily uncovers more about her neighbor’s mysterious past, she finds that they share a love of language, the same longings, and the same intense jealousy, never suspecting that a dark secret from the past connects them.

“A love letter to Paris, the power of books, and the beauty of intergenerational friendship” (Booklist), The Paris Library shows that extraordinary heroism can sometimes be found in the quietest places.

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo iTunes logo Indiebound logo Kobo logo Kindle logo Bookshop logo Libro.fm logo

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A Sweeping Historical Novel About One Remarkable Woman 

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Photo credit: iStock / DmitriiSimakov

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