- Book: The Giver of Stars
- Location: Kentucky
- Author: Jojo Moyes
Impulsive Alice Wright feels that she doesn’t fit in the stultifying world of middle-class Surrey in the 1930s, so when handsome American mine owner Bennett Van Cleve strides into her life, she doesn’t think twice before accepting his offer of marriage. She dreams of a life of excitement, passion and adventure but quickly finds that she has swapped one prison for another. Depression-era Baileyville in Kentucky offers her a life that is just as stifling as the one she knew in England. Alice is an outsider with a strange accent and is largely resented by the other women because she has snatched Bennett away from his local sweetheart. What makes it all even more unbearable is that Bennett is distinctly lacking in the bedroom department, something that innocent Alice doesn’t understand and can’t ask about. The couple live with Bennett’s father, an aggressive bully who, believing that women should know their place, quickly comes to dislike the outspoken Alice.
And then Alice meets Margery O’Hare, a fiercely independent woman who is trying to shake off her family’s reputation for feuding, fighting and making moonshine. Margery is on a mission to bring books and the wonder of reading to the isolated families in the hills around Baileyville through the Pack Horse Library Initiative and she desperately needs help. Before Bennett has time to restrain her, Alice volunteers and joins a little band of brave women who pit themselves against inhospitable terrain, inclement weather and often hostile, aggressive folks to bring literacy to the remote regions. She finds, in the work and in the company of the other librarians, a purpose to her life and somewhere she finally belongs as well as a welcome escape from the Van Cleves, father and son.
But the work of the horseback librarians, valued greatly by many, is questioned in town, particularly by the elder Van Cleve, who suspects, (correctly) that Margery is spreading a pro-union message along with the books and he sets about blackening their reputation, silencing the troublesome Margery and bringing his contrary daughter-in-law into line.
Moyes has a well-deserved reputation as a brilliant writer of contemporary romance but in The Giver of Stars she proves that she is just as adept at historical fiction. Inspired by the true story of The Pack Horse Library Initiative – a Works Programme Administration project that ran from 1935 to 1943, Moyes creates a great read, peopled with wonderful, strong female characters.
The Giver of Starsis, however, more than just a good read, easily devoured in one sitting. The setting – 1930s Kentucky, small-town Baileyville and the remote mountains, are vividly evoked for the reader through wonderful description and we are left with an enduring impression of the region, in all its beauty and brutality. The novel offers an, at times, uncomfortable exploration of domestic violence and the hardships suffered by women generally in the 1930s, but it also gives us a real celebration of reading and female friendship and solidarity in the face of adversity.