Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes: Reading Room Review

For some time I've had a fascination about the pack horse librarians in Kentucky, and I love reading my history through historical fiction, well researched by the author for authenticity. Reading about Jojo Moyes' research for The Giver of Stars, I felt confident the story was well rooted in facts. This heartfelt story about the five women who comprised the group of Pack Horse Librarians in a small town in southeastern Kentucky, part of the Appalachians, was a love letter to those amazing women who worked in the WPA Pack Horse Librarians Program during the late 1930s into the early 1940s and to reading as a salvation for those who had little else. Books brought hope and light into a depression era world of poverty and back-breaking labor, and the pack horse librarians brought the books every week to two weeks to different remote areas in the mountains, where isolation was a way of life. And, this book, The Giver of Stars, also tells the history of the plight of women in a man's world and the strength that came from friendships with other women, and the story raises the awareness of the chokehold that the coal companies had on the people of Appalachia. Life was hard and it took a special kind of determination to try to make it better. The pack horse librarians had that determination, spurred on by the encouragement of our country's first lady at the time, Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Alice Wright thought that leaving her home in England and marrying American Bennett Van Cleve would bring her relief from her critical parents and stifled life. She dreams of living in a big city where life is exciting and fresh. But, Bennett and his father live in a small town in Kentucky, Baileyville, not a big city, and Bennett is satisfied to live in the family home of his father, where his father rules with an iron fist. Alice has simply traded one prison for another. When there's a town meeting asking for volunteers for the Pack Horse Librarian Program, she sees an opportunity to get out of the oppressive household for long days away delivering the books. 

Heading up the small group of women for the Pack Horse Library is Margery O'Hare, an independent, unconventional woman who lives by herself in a cabin outside of town with her dog and her mule, and as well as knowing the land and its paths through the mountains like nobody else, she is a toughened survivor from a family of a bootlegging father who beat her and her brothers with impunity. Margery is just the person to take an incongruous mix of women and turn them into an efficient group of reliable, responsible librarians on horseback (or muleback). Each woman has her strengths and weaknesses, and each one is determined to succeed. Alice, with her English accent and unfamiliarity with the people and mountains brings her horsemanship and need to find some meaning in this new life she's chosen. Izzy doesn't let her struggle with a leg shortened by polio affect her conquering her fear of riding a horse, as she needs to prove to her parents that she isn't an invalid to be coddled. Beth, who smokes and curses, coming from a household with brothers and a father but no mother, has dreams she hasn't dared to speak because they are so far from where she is. Sophia doesn't ride, mainly due to her being black and the community not being accepting of that. She was a former librarian at a black library in Louisville where her skills of organization and book repair save the new Pack Horse Library of Baileyville from becoming a disorganized mess of ruined books. Later, another local woman, Kathleen, joins the group. Kathleen is a recent widow, whose family benefited from the books delivered by Alice, and whose husband Alice read to as he lay dying from black lung disease. This disparate group of women find strength, friendship, and purpose in their jobs as Pack Horse Librarians, and they develop a support system among themselves that proves to be life altering.

The juxtaposition of the altruism of the Pack Horse Library reaching out to those in need and the coal mine beating people down and keeping them entrenched in poverty is powerful. And, there is the resistance to change, from women being only subservient to being in charge, from people being uneducated and prone to manipulation to people being educated through reading and knowledgeable about their rights. At the head of the opposition to the librarians is Alice's father-in-law, Mr. Van Cleve, and he plays as dirty as dirty can get. While his son isn't the despicable lout his father is, Alice finds herself in a loveless marriage without any hope of it changing. So, the reader is on an emotional rollercoaster with being swept away by the beauty of the hills and the touching stories of lives improved by books and the friendship of five women, but then the heart breaks at the insidious actions of those who put the almighty dollar above life and truth. There is romantic love, too, in this multi-layered story, love that shows how men can love strong women without it being a battle for control or a need to dominate. Moyes describes what I think is the perfect definition of love in the following encounter: "Time flew, and each ended the night full and happy, with the rare glow that comes from knowing your very being has been understood by somebody else, and that there might just be someone out there who will only ever see the best in you."

This story is the first Jojo Moyes book I've read, and I'm eager to read another one to determine if all her books contain the beauty of thought and language that The Giver of Stars does. She creates magic from her words, with sentences the reader will want to read more than once to savor that magic. Enjoying the prose as well as the story is an absolute delight. The characters are inspiring. How all the women working for the Pack Horse Library change over the course of the story is masterfully developed by the author. Jojo Moyes has taken a piece of history and woven a story through it that should touch anyone's heart. I only hope that the movie version of it will capture just how special it is.

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