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The Giver of Stars

By Jojo Moyes, A charming and light historical fiction novel about the Pack Horse Librarians of Appalachia in the 1930s

Brief Summary
Detailed Summary
Read it or Skip It?

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes is the author’s latest work and a book rooted in a little known piece of Great Depression-era history. Moyes is most well known for Me Before You, which became a movie starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin.

I wasn’t a fan of Me Before You (found it a bit wealth-obsessed), but I thought I might have better luck with her historical fiction offering, The Giver of Stars. It was also chosen as Reese’s Book Club pick for November.

reese book club giver of stars jo jo jojo moyes summary review book review synopsis

Plot Summary

For the Detailed Plot Summary, click here or scroll all the way down.

Based on a program that was instituted by Eleanor Roosevelt in the mid-1930s, The Giver of Stars is about a group of women that begin a traveling library that delivers books to the rural areas of the town on horseback.

These so-called Pack Horse Librarians must overcome a number of obstacles on their way to bringing literacy to the masses, but they do so and tackle these challenges together. It’s a tale of love, friendship and of course books.

See The Giver of Stars on Amazon.

Book Review

The Giver of Stars is a relaxing and pleasurable read about friendship, love and a love of books. The story is inspired by the real-life packhorse librarians, which was a program that involved around 30 libraries in Appalachia that was administered under First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt from the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s. The book also delves into the mining industry in that area and how that impacted communities.

While the story is based on historic events, there’s an air of romanticism running through The Giver of Stars. When bad things happen to the characters, for the most part, it feels like a sanitized, more palatable version of events. There’s usually someone there to defend them or stand up for injustices. Even to the extent it veers into issues of sexism or racism, it does so in a fairly safe way, staying within simpler black-and-white boundaries instead of dealing in the messy nuances of these issues.

As you might imagine, this is not a dark or gritty novel, but I appreciated that. It makes for a good book to unwind with and just enjoy the characters and the small-town charm of the book.

The historic context does a lot of the groundwork in providing some substance to the story, and the period details add a lot of color and atmosphere to the novel as well. And Moyes does a great job of shaping it into an engaging, well-paced narrative with believable plot developments. It hits a lot of familiar dramatic beats as other books, but still manages to feel relatively fresh.

I also liked Jojo Moyes’s writing. It’s unselfconscious and straightforward. She lets the story speak for itself, and it never feels forced or dull. She manages to infuse plenty of personality and character into places and people through specific details or dialogue, instead of relying on overlong descriptions.

Historic Photo, the Pack Horse Librarians

Copyright and Plagiarism Controversy

So, I put off reading this for a while due to the plagiarism controversy surrounding its release. I thought I should at least look into it before buying either book. The short version of this is that another book came out, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, where that author felt that some details from The Giver of Stars were suspiciously similar.

After looking over the details, I came to the conclusion that I felt comfortable reading The Giver of Stars. And after actually reading it, I feel like that was the right conclusion.

Ultimately, the overlaps that were cited are pretty minor aspects of the story or things where overlap makes sense, given that they are about the same period of history. I can understand why the other author would feel possessive over the topic, especially in a book released in a similar time-frame by a more well-known author, so I don’t judge her at all for feeling territorial. I also feel like some of the details really are weirdly similar.

But ultimately the meaningful similarity is the topic, and you can’t claim ownership over a topic like that. To frame this in a different way, if the topics were different, would anyone even look twice at those similarities in minor details of two books?

Either way, I encourage you to look over the allegations and judge for yourself.

The Giver of Stars Movie Adaptation

The film rights were acquired and a director for the movie adaptation, Ol Parker, was announced, all months before the book was even released. For all the details, see Everything We Know about the Giver of Stars Movie Adaptation.

Read it or Skip it?

The Giver of Stars is a pleasure read about books, love and friendship that’s rooted in a lesser-known piece of history. It’s an unchallenging, accessible book with no pretensions that’s enjoyable and hopeful.

I really liked reading this. There are so many recent releases that have been tedious, needlessly long, or just very serious or dark, so I found this to be a lovely departure from all that. It’s capably written and tells a charming, engaging story about small-town drama. I think the worst thing you could say is that it’s somewhat of a “safe” and slightly romanticized story, but it never veers into being cheesy or melodramatic, so that didn’t bother me at all.

I’d happily recommend this to anyone looking for a quick and pleasant read with a sort of “awww, shucks” kind of charm. If you’ve been in a reading slump, this could be a great contender for a fast read to help pull you out of it and to remind you of why reading is fun!

Also, if your book club has been feeling bogged down by 500+ page tomes or really literary works, this could be a great change of pace. It’s got some substance to make it feel worthwhile, but still comes off as a light and pleasurable read.

See The Giver of Stars on Amazon.

Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)

Quick Synopsis

The section-by-section summary is below, but here's the quick version. In Fall of 1937 in Baileyville, Kentucky, they are looking for volunteers to join a new traveling library, made possible by WPA (government) funds. They end up with Margery, Beth, Izzy and Alice Van Cleve. Alice is an Englishwoman who moved here to be with her new husband, Bennett, but is unhappy in her marriage. (It's later implied/rumored that Bennett is gay.)

The main library is at Fred Guisler's cabin, and the women ride horses to deliver books around town and to the rural areas. There is initial resistance, but they slowly win people over. As interest grows, they bring on Sophia, a black woman and former professional librarian, to help them manage and organize the library. One night Margery is attacked by a man (Clem McCullough) who'd had beef with Margery's late father, but she hits him with a book and gets away.

Alice's controlling father-in-law, Mr. Van Cleve lives with them and runs the mining company in town, Hoffman Mining. But miners are being injured there due to dangerous conditions. When Margery begins a campaign to prevent more mines from being built (letting people know it would destroy their homes), Mr. Van Cleve starts to see Margery and the library as his enemy. When Alice refuses to leave the librarians, Mr. Van Cleve is physically violent with Alice, so Alice leaves and moves in with Margery. Frustrated and unable to convince Alice to come back, Mr. Van Cleve shoots Margery's dog and tries to get the library shut down.

Then, a flood happens and the librarians help to save the day. In the aftermath, Margery tells her loving boyfriend, Sven, that she is pregnant. Moreover, Margery discovers that a lot of the damage wasn't from the flood, but from mining residue (coal slurry) from one of Hoffman's dams which broke. Margery confronts Mr. Van Cleve publicly.

Just as things are looking up, the Clem's body is found with his head bashed in and a bloody copy of Little Women nearby. Margery is subsequently arrested and jailed. The other librarians try to cover for Margery, but things look bleak, even if she hurt him in self defense. Margery gives birth in jail.

With the trial underway, Bennett (who has been a reluctant participant in his father's schemes) apologizes to Alice and tells her to reach out to McCullough's daughters in order to save Margery. The librarians go and find out that McCullough was an abusive father whose daughters hated him. At the last minute, Vera McCullough testifies (lying) that the book had been borrowed by Clem (so it is not tied to Margery). Margery is set free.

With the trial over, Alice had been planning on moving home to England, despite her and Fred's mutual feelings. Before she leaves, she confides in Fred about her sexless marriage, and he informs her if she never consummated her marriage, then she can get it annulled. Alice and Fred soon marry, as do Margery and Sven. Izzy follows her dreams to become a singer, and Beth moves to India to travel. Sophia gets a job at a library in Louisville. Bennett also remarries (but it's implied he and his new wife still have problems in the bedroom).

Section-by-Section Summary

Prologue, December 20, 1937

Margery "Marge" O’Hare and her horse Charley are stopped by a man, Clem McCullough. He attacks her, but she hits him with a book and gets away.

Chapters 1 - 3

(Three months earlier) At a town meeting in Baileyville, Kentucky, it's announced that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) has released funds for them to start a traveling library, due to Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's interest in literacy and learning. Margery O’Hare and Beth Pinker will be riding horses around the county to deliver books. Isabelle "Izzy" Brady is volunteered by her mother, who strongly advocates for the project.

Alice Van Cleve volunteers as well, despite her husband's protests. Alice is Englishwoman who is dissatisfied with her small-town life in Baileyville with her husband Bennett. She married him in order to get away from her controlling parents. Bennett and his father, Mr. Geoffrey Van Cleve, run the Hoffman mines. The other women in town such as Peggy Foreman dislike Alice for being foreign. Alice is assigned a little mare named Spirit to ride, and the librarians ride around encouraging people to read, despite the resistance of people such as Jim Horner, who insists he's not interested. Frederick Guisler helps to manage the main library which is at his cabin.

Chapters 4 - 6

Bennett and Alice's relationship continues to be rocky (and sexless), though Bennett's father keeps asking them about having kids. Peggy Foreman cotinues to flirt with Bennett. Izzy, who walks with a limp (from polio) and needs a leg brace, shows up a few weeks later to join them as promised. She's given Patch to ride, and they end up removing her brace so she can ride. She doesn't want to be there at first, but soon comes around. She's also a talented signer.

Sven Gustavsson is Margery's beau and a nice man who works as the town's fire captain and wants her to marry him. However, Margery's late father was abusive (he later died in a drunken gunfight with Bill McCullough), which has made her distrust men. Her brother Jack left because of it (was later killed in an accident), and her sister Virginia ended up marrying a man who was also abusive. Her father was also a moonshiner, which gave the family a bad name.

Despite the initial resistance, over time, the demand for books grows. Alice helps Kathleen Bligh by reading to her chronically ill husband, Garrett. She's also pleasantly surprised when Jim Horner asks for more books. He apologizes for being rude before, which he attributes to being in mourning over his wife. They need more help, so Margery asks Sophia Kenworth, who has had formal librarian training and experience, to join them to man the main library. Sophia is a black woman who taught Margery to read and lent her books growing up. Margery also hears from Sophia's brother, William (who was recently injured in the mines), about a plan Hoffman has to create new mines that would destroy many homes.

Chapters 7 - 10

Sophia gets the library organized and categorized systematically. Meanwhile, Margery is discreetly writing letters to neighbors not to sign anything that would allow the Hoffman Mining Company to create new mines under their properties. Sven also reports to Mr. Van Cleve the dangerous conditions in the mines, but is brushed off. Garret Bligh passes away due to a sickness relating to the mines, and the town goes to pay their respects.

Tex Lafayette, a famous singer/cowboy, has a show and the whole town attends. Alice gets sprayed by a skunk on the way, but Fred helps to clean her up. However, afterwards three drunk boys break in, demanding to know why there's a black person working at the library. Fred scares them off, but soon the town has a meeting debating Sophie's employment there. Mr. Van Cleve is against it, but Margery brings up how he employs blacks people at the mine, but lists them as mulatto (mixed-race). At home, he demands Alice quit the packhorse librarians, but she refuses.

At the library, there is a little blue book (called Married Love) which contains sex advice that is being discreetly circulated. After Alice reads it, she tries to seduce Bennett, mentioning the book, but he rebuffs her and shames her for it. (Sophia thinks Bennett might be gay). Meanwhile, it's clear Frederick's crush on Alice is growing.

One day, Marge shows up upset and looking into getting a gun. (It's implied the scene from the prologue when she was attacked has just occurred.) She's worried that Clem McCullough is coming after her again. Sven is furious.

Chapters 11 - 13

Mr. Van Cleve is convinced that Margery is a problem (making him look bad at the town meeting and obstructing the new mines) and asks the governor to shut the library down. The governor is reluctant, but Mr. Van Cleve brings up the blue book, which Bennett presumably told him about. Meanwhile, the late Mrs. Van Cleve had a collection of porcelain dolls, and Alice takes two to give to Jim Horner's daughters. When Mr. Van Cleve finds out, he flips out, and Alice talks back to him. He brings up the blue book, starts hitting her and calls her a whore. Distraught, Alive leaves and goes to Margery's house.

When Fred sees Alice's injuries, he is upset. He notes that when his wife, Selena, was cheating on him, others told him he should teach her a lesson, but he wouldn't do it. Bennett comes by, and Alice tells him it's over. Mr. Van Cleve even offers her money to come back, which she declines. In retaliation, Mr. Van Cleve calls a town meeting where he advocates shutting the library down. When Izzy's father hears of them circulating Married Love (known to be scandalous book), he wants her to drop out. Meanwhile, Beth takes a spill and hurts her arm which puts her out of commission, and Alice's injuries would invite too many questions for her to ride. Thankfully, Kathleen offers to ride.

When even the pastor can't convince Alice to go back, it's soon rumored that Mr. Van Cleve isn't able to maintain control of his household. The governor tells him that he should be focused on his mines and his household, not the librarians. The comments set Mr. Van Cleve off, and despite Bennett's protests, Mr. Van Cleve shoots Margery's dog, Bluey.

Chapters 14 - 18

That winter, Margery is demoralized by the death of her beloved dog, and Alice starts practicing how to shoot a gun. By March, Beth is healed. Sophie encourages Alice to allow things to happen with Fred, but Alice knows what the town would say. Sophie also tells Alice about her ex-husband, Benjamin, who was shot dead in the streets for no reason.

When a rain threatens to flood the town, the librarians ride to alert the town and stop to help Mrs. Cornish with her mule along the way. Alice and Fred try to save the books. Marge goes to help Sophia and William, but their place is flooding fast. Meanwhile, Izzy disobeys her mother and takes her parents' car to join Becky, and together they save three kids. When Margery gets back, Sven holds her and realizes she is pregnant, which is why she's been pushing him away. (Later, Sophia and Sven tell Marge she needs to marry for the baby's sake.) Mrs. Brady informs her husband that she's going to let Izzy rejoin the librarians.

Afterwards, Margery goes to check on Sophia and realizes from the black marks that it was the coal slurry from a broken dam that wrecked Sophia's house (and all the houses in that area), not the flood. Marge confronts Mr. Van Cleve about it in a diner (by dropping sludge on his plate), until Sven leads her out. Alice meanwhile has been romantic with Fred, but they are not letting their relationship get physical.

In April, the body of Clem McCullough is found with his head bashed in and a bloodied copy of Little Women nearby.

Chapters 19 - 22

Mr. Van Cleve insists to the sheriff that Margery must be guilty, and she soon arrested for Clem's murder. Sven tells the other librarians about what happened with Clem and Margery, with her hitting him with the book in self-defense. Alice visits Marge in jail every day, bringing fresh cornbread, but the weeks pass by without progress. Meanwhile, Alice's parents have accepted that her marriage is over and are letting her return home. She tells Fred she will return to England after Marge's trial. Mrs. Brady offers to take over the library in Margery's absence.

When Margery, still in jail, goes into labor, Alice fetches Sofia. A little girl is born, named Virginia Alice O’Hare. The women all visit continuously and try to arrange slightly cleaner conditions for Marge. Marge is delighted by the baby, but as her trial nears, it's clear she's looking at 20 years or death. She hands off the baby to a heartbroken Sven and stops accepting visitors.

Chapters 23 - 25

The town is in a frenzy leading up to the trial and the local news is filled with lurid headlines. Outside the jailhouse, the other librarians sing a song to give her strength. Margery pleads not guilty. As the trial progresses, things look bleak for Margery as they confirm his death from blunt force trauma.

Bennett finds Alice and discreetly suggests to her to talk to MuCullough's daughters, who had refused to cooperate with the Sheriff. He also Alice bids farewell, knowing she is leaving. That weekend, the librarians ride up together to see the daughters. Verna MuCullough reluctantly lets them in.

Chapters 26 - 27

The book hops forward to Monday morning at the courthouse. The defense counsel begins making a closing statement, noting that the main link is the library book, which could have been placed near the body long after it was dead. Then, Kathleen interrupts with a witness, Verna McCullough.

Verna (who hated her abusive father, Clem) testifies that on December 20th (the day Marge was attacked by Clem), that Clem had left to return a library book, Little Women, and never made it home. The physician is then called to testify again. He confirms the possibility that his injuries could have been caused by him simply slipping and falling on the book as well. With that, the judge orders that Marge be released.

Before Alice leaves, she confides in Fred about her failed marriage. He's surprised, but also delighted when he finds out she and Bennett never consummated their marriage. He shows her in the books that it means she's not married in the eyes of God, and it means she can get the marriage annulled. They kiss (finally!).

Chapter 28

Sven and Margery get married in late October, and get a new puppy two months later. Fred and Alice marry a month later. Sophia and her brother move to Louisville, where she takes a job at a colored library. Kathleen begins to spend time with Jim Horner and his girls. Beth declares she's going to travel in India (and it's implied she was secretly brewing moonshine on the side to save up money). Izzy ends up successfully pursuing her singing career and even does a duet with Tex Lafayette.

Bennett also marries Peggy Foreman, with the rest of the librarians well-wishes (though a while later Peggy shows up at the library asking for the little blue book).

See The Giver of Stars on Amazon.

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