Book review and synopsis for The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes, a charming and light historical fiction novel about the Pack Horse Librarians of Appalachia in the 1930s.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Highly Recommended Published October 8th, 2019
Page Count 400 pages
Goodreads4.28 (out of 5)
From the Publisher
Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.
The leader, and soon Alice's greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who's never asked a man's permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.
What happens to them--and to the men they love--becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.