Looking for a vintage librarian in fiction novel has proven exceedingly challenging. They are very scarce, and oftentimes there are simply no copies of a particular title available for sale. I would know, as I’ve been on “the hunt” since May of 2010. Back in the fall, my mom and I locally asked around to a few antiquarian booksellers including Jeff, the owner of Kaleidoscope Books, if he had any such titles, to which he said he did not. Then I started working at Kaleidoscope and one of my first projects was to make his extensive collection of girls’ series books available for online purchase. Part of this process was to retrieve books from what I deem the “ceiling cases” as they are so high up, and therefore not always accessible for casual browsing. And then we found it: Butterfly Takes Command by Helen Elmira Waite, published in 1944 by the Macrae-Smith Company.
Butterfly Takes Command is simply perfect in its dated imperfection. The plot summary on the dust jacket is littered with errors, such as the protagonist’s age. This is a wartime book, complete with a statement that this book meets government paper conservation regulations. There is also a note of patriotic propaganda on the rear cover featuring a note from the author proudly proclaiming, “Let Us Never Have a Blackout on Books in America!” The note encourages readers to buy war stamps towards victory. Even the plot, which takes place in 1941, heavily revolves around patriotism and German spies. Or at least, the dust jacket plot summary promises that Bee “helps round up a group of Nazi agents.”
The novel kicks off with a few pages describing the wonders of modern aviation as our protagonist, Bee Hempstead, also known as Butterfly, takes her very first airplane flight. We are then introduced to the Hempstead family, who are all over-achieving superstars who belittle Bee for about the first two hundred pages of this book. If this sounds tiring, it’s because it is. “You know, I simply can’t imagine [Bee] doing anything useful.” “I am not in authority here, otherwise you certainly would be dismissed at once.” “Her family, once it had recovered from stupefaction at the incredible idea that any thoughtful person would offer Bee a responsible position, had been proud of her, but none of the Hempsteads could shake off their surprise, and under their amused eyes Bee had felt more like a child presented with a new doll than like a grown girl who had just been engaged for her first job.”
The real value of this text was less in the shallow “mystery” plot than in the discussion of mid-twentieth century libraries. This may be a provocative thing to say, but reading this book may just have been more useful than my first year in a Master’s of Information program. It’s like everything a certain hot-mess foundation course strove to be but wasn’t: it was engaging, it introduced various library service theories, and gave insight into various positions within the profession. Waite writes descriptions of how library patrons sought information in the 1940s, such as circulating pamphlets or a sizable photographic collection with a categorized index. Several times Bee works circulation, describing it, “One came into close touch with the G.P. there…met all types of readers… the borrower who was inclined to make disparaging remarks about the library because the book for which her soul longed happened to be out.” Patrons ask questions, make requests, and actually do in-building research! The Cherry Hill Public Library even has a station wagon, used for outreach projects such as bi-weekly hospital visits and a new program to visit the elderly. And yes, there is even mention of a summer reading club in the children’s department. The theme is international travel.
Through the lens of young adult fiction, the very nature of librarianship itself is discussed. Is the library a community center, or a business institution? Should a librarian seek to connect with patrons and make a difference, or merely offer efficient and courteous service? Where is that line drawn? For me, the most interesting line of this entire novel was when Grey, Bee’s friend, argued with the senior-most librarian about the very nature of the profession. He sarcastically asks, “Why not invent an automatic librarian? Something on which you could press a combination of buttons and get all the proper answers?” I’d be curious to hear what my School of Information peers make of that. As a reminder, this book was written in the early 1940s.
Bee’s experience working in the public library also had practical situations not unheard of in any workplace: serious under-staffing, mean and/or stupid co-workers, and sudden downsizing. Even in its formulaic and predictable plot, this novel greatly surpasses most representations of librarians or information professionals in literature that I’ve read so far. There is no mention of a dowdy wardrobe, which I feel is worthy of praise.
Butterfly Takes Command is the first “mystery” as well as the first young adult novel to earn a place on this mostly vintage romance novel blog. It is also the first book to be featured on this blog which is not actually mine! Upon discovering it, my mom and I each wanted each other to have it. When my mom, a children’s librarian of many years, first saw Butterfly Takes Command, her eyes got big and she held the book close to her heart for a while. There was no way I would agree to keeping it, so we came upon an agreement. I would have Butterfly Takes Command from February until my mom’s birthday, at which time I would give it to her. However, she expressly wished that I would read it and blog on it first.
As such, this is my mom’s birthday blog post. Happy Birthday, Mom! I wish the circumstances this year were different, and that this time in our lives was not so incredibly difficult. I can’t be there on July 5th to present this book in person, and this blog post is a few days early, but my wishes are all the same. Have a wonderful birthday. I’ll be thinking of you, and always will be sending my love.
Copies of other books with a career focus are available for purchase here.