Five remarkable horseback-riding women transport us to Depression-era Appalachia – inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s WPA Pack Horse Library Project (Baileyville, Eastern Kentucky 1937): When the author of 38 million books sold, including the hugely popular Me Before You trilogy, acknowledges at the end of her 11th novel that “more than anything I’ve written . . . The Giver of Stars “made writing an unusual joy,” believe her, because it’s a joy to read.
And it’s “good for the soul” like reading – the mission of five heroic women carrying out Eleanor Roosevelt’s ambitious goal of delivering, by horseback, books, magazines, and comics to uneducated, wary of strangers, isolated mountain families in extreme poverty (shacks and cabins insulated with newspapers), scattered miles within the beautiful yet daunting Cumberland Mountains of Appalachian Kentucky, to provide them a new deal under FDR’s Works Progress Administration. Stars who risked their lives to make a difference. And they did, but wouldn’t have if not for the friendships forged.
While the historical times were not joyous, gutsy characters depict qualities to celebrate: persistence, resilience, courage, loyalty, compassion. Joyous too how much reading matters for the downtrodden.
The Giver of Stars hits the right notes on big, important themes: understanding mountain people as victims of circumstances – economics, illiteracy, domestic abuse, sexism, alcoholism, long-held feuds. Others egregiously affected by power, money, and the dangers of coal-mining, with little hope of earning an income except for local farming and selling home-made, illegal, and potent liquor, moonshine. Contrary to stereotypes of Appalachia as white, coal-miners were also black, so racism also reveals its injustices.
Moyes invents a town, Baileyville, but it feels as if it exists. “For people who lived so deeply in nature . . . they seemed oblivious to the idea of respecting it.” Coal mining’s impact – devastation to the land, health hazards, displacement of families, and efforts to squash unionizers championing workers rights– provides an environmental and economic message as relevant today as seventy-years ago.
This, then, is an emotionally, culturally, financially, and ethically moving tale that humanizes plights of survival of poor people living in small, remote towns, the greedy men who suppressed them, and the brave souls who served them, advocating for human rights, humaneness.
Moyes creates five different women, with different struggles and fears, to represent the different themes. Each has lost so much too, but by coming together for a meaningful cause they “shine through the gloom.”
It’s a pleasure to introduce them:
Alice: The protagonist. Like the author, from England. Unlike Moyes, who still lives there, Alice leaves, rashly marrying a handsome man she barely knew, Bennett Van Cleve – her ticket out of Surrey, UK, away from her rejecting family where she can’t seem to do anything right in their upper-class eyes. Elegant, Alice’s sadness and loneliness will tug at your heart. Sadly, she plunges deeper into misery, when she finds herself in a loveless marriage in Appalachian Kentucky, a shocking “cultural shift,” living under the same roof as father Van Cleve, a repugnant man and despicable boss of the Hoffman Mining Company. Rich but his house is silent and repressive, surrounded by the ghosts of a deceased wife and mother. Made even more unbearable when Alice realizes she married a shadow of a man.
A terrible incident in that terrible house is another shock to her system, compelling Alice to defiantly escape, by volunteering for the library project. This time she finds companionship and “liberation” with the women and a devoted animal aptly named Spirit: a mule, a cross between a horse and a donkey. We so want Alice to be happy, a testament to how emotionally relatable and tenderly developed the author has created her.
Moyes understands what it means to be a stranger in a strange land, saying in an interview that’s how she felt writing about Kentucky and its mountain people. So she visited the region three times over the course of two years while writing the novel, riding the same mountain trails the women rode, staying in a mountain cabin, and talking to the people to hear their stories and rhythmic language, which she infused in her evocative prose.
Margery: Alice’s fearless role-model. At thirty-eight, she’s tough-as-nails, having lived in the holler all her life. She knows the land and its people, and like all small towns where everyone knows everyone’s business, the “misfortunes of families,” they know hers. Margery is fiercely independent, learned to save herself her life must be unencumbered, which sets up one of the two romantic tensions winding through the plot. (The other romance is sweet Alice’s.) The author is an award-winning romance novelist, so she excels at poignantly developing affairs of the heart.
Margery takes Alice under her wings when the fledgling book project begins. Also encourages the other women to stand up for themselves. Until another tragic event beats her down.
Izzy: Her marvelous turnaround makes you feel like singing out, like she does in her angelic singing voice, accomplishing something more powerful than the sound of her music. Another outsider, because of a leg disability from polio. Her mother, who oversees the WPA project, forced her to ride into the mountains when she couldn’t even mount a horse. Alice comes up with an idea to accommodate that, boosting Izzy’s self-worth.
Sophia: Symbolizes the racist times. She lives in a segregated area in the worst spot in the valley. Came home from Louisville where she was a real librarian for eight years in a segregated library – sanctioned by a 1933 law (an assault on libraries as great equalizers) – to care for her brother William, who lost his leg in a mining accident, the mine owned by elder Van Cleve. When the library takes off, she’s called upon to organize and mend books. You’ll love how everyone comes to depend on her, how much strength she has.
Beth: Least known, for a good reason. She’s so busy tending to her farming responsibilities and her substitute motherly role for her brothers, she’s not around as much as the others.
Two good-hearted men of integrity buoy these heroic women, heroes too:
Sven: Margery’s lover for the past ten years. Beloved by all, he’s one of the miners. And the one who keeps asking Margery to marry him.
Fred: “A veritable saint.” Offered his barn to house the books where the characters gather. There’s warmth in that makeshift library, but his old-fashioned manners and protectiveness of Alice warms even more. He also watches over Sophia, sensitive to vulnerabilities. We see how deeply he cares for Alice before she does, since she’s married, he off limits. Their budding relationship is an endearing conflict between heart versus head.
Much more is packed into this nearly 400-page novel. Sentimental scenes of Alice softening bitter mountain men and grieving mountain women to allow her into their houses to bring reading material and read to their children, in stark contrast to dramatic scenes of lawlessness, hopelessness.
Moyes’ nimble prose flows from fine, reserved proper English to Appalachian dialect and poor grammar, to the outspokenness of unconventional women, to the distrust of strangers, and the angry lashing out loosened by drunkenness.
“There’s always a way out of a situation,” says Margery to Alice. It’s telling this conversation was chosen for the back cover. Whether that advice comes to fruition for those in deep trouble and pain is why this starred novel will sell many more millions of Jojo Moyes’ books.