The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

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The Giver of Stars by British author Jojo Moyes is American historical fiction, but Moyes nails the story of the Packhorse Librarians in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. The Horseback Librarians was a Works Progress Administration program created during the Depression era. Eleanor Roosevelt initiated the program to bring reading material to the most isolated communities–the poor, uneducated and isolated people–of the hill country.

T hough the program lasted only eight years, from 1935 to 1943, the impact on children and women was tremendous. Many of these people were illiterate, so the librarians would sit and read to them before taking off on the next leg of their route.

The novel begins when Alice Wright marries Bennett Van Cleve. Alice is a British woman who doesn’t seem to fit in the society around her. She feels stifled and wants out. Marrying Bennett seems a logical step, so after a whirlwind romance, she marries him. It doesn’t take long for her to wonder if her decision was the right one. It seems that she has traded one domestic prison for another. The small, rural Kentucky town of Baileyville is as stifling as her home life with Bennett, his father and her deceased mother-in-law.

When the opportunity comes to participate in the library project, she quickly says yes without consulting her husband or her ever-present father-in-law. When Bennett questions her ability to ride, she retorts she has been riding since she was four. When he questions her knowledge of the hill country, Margery speaks up and says she’ll teach her the routes.

Margery (Marge) O’Hare is a single woman who survived her childhood with her father, Frank O’Hare, an uncouth, belligerent drunk and maker of moonshine. Margery’s father, as the novel opens, is dead; Marge lives pretty much as she pleases and answers to no man. She has lovers but refuses to consider marriage. Because of this, many people in the town and surrounding hills disapprove of her but “leave her be.”

The library is run by Marge with the help of the enterprising Mrs. Brady, a prominent member of Baileyville society. Over the course of the novel, three more women join Marge and Alice—Beth, a mountain woman who knows the people and trails, Izzy, Mrs. Brady’s daughter who limits her activities due to a childhood bout of polio, and Sophia, a black, fully trained librarian. With this cast of characters, the packhorse library is formed. Later, Kathleen joins the women. The novel follows the women’s difficulties; the stories are at times funny and at times heartbreaking. The five women create bonds of friendship that see them through all of their difficulties and make them stronger women.

Moyes focuses on the gender roles of the time—the expectations men have of women and women’s place in society. A principal objection was to the women riding out into the hills alone. Many felt women should not take a paying job while ignoring their household duties of cooking and raising children. Marge’s decision to have her baby and not get married was still another challenge of society’s norms. And the very idea of a woman of color working in a “white” person’s library was scandalous. Moyes handles each situation in a delicate if predictable way and all problems are neatly solved by the book’s end.

During the Depression, many coal mines in the United States were closed and others were unionized. Bennett’s father, Geoffrey Van Cleve, is the owner of one such mine. Therefore, he is used to being obeyed in all things and has a hard time accepting that his new daughter-in-law is not as spineless as his son.

An underlying theme is how the mobile library fit into the lives of the different characters. Children could read books because there were no schools for them. Women could set their own timetables and read whenever they wished because the men were working. Often, the men would be too tired to read at night; in other homes, reading was a family activity when the family gathered to hear the stories together. The men especially appreciated the covertly circulated little blue book Married Love; some said it added a little extra pep to their steps.

While Moyes is a professional of many years’ experience, there are accusations of plagiarism with this novel. According to some, The Giver of Stars is eerily similar to previously published The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. No formal lawsuits has been filed; many have dismissed Richardson’s concerns as baseless and mere coincidence. I haven’t read Richardson’s book, so I can’t comment. However, you may want to read both and form your own opinion. ■

Sources: and Editor’s note: HERLIFE Magazine published a review of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek in March 2020 that is available in website archives.