I don’t think I have ever read a book by Jojo Moyes that I haven’t enjoyed, and this one was no exception! And as soon as I heard it was all about books, and horseback librarians, I knew I had to read it.
Enter Kentucky in the 1930’s, those dark lean years during the Depression. People work hard, and they are poor. Women are expected to stay at home, raise children and run a households, whilst eking out a scarce living with very little money to buy essentials. School is a luxury many simply can’t afford, and there is a lot of illiteracy among the mountain folk (up to 31% of all people in Eastern Kentucky couldn’t read, a huge number!). This is where the horseback librarians come in. As part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s incentive to improve literacy among the poor, these women are employed to deliver books to the poorest and most outlying families scattered among the mountains. The terrain is rough, the weather often hostile, and not all families welcome the intrusion. And yet Margery, Alice, Beth and Izzy make their daily journey to spread the love of books to everyone. For some families, it becomes the highlight of their week, their escape from drudgery, their hope of a better future – the magic of books.
Moyes’ historical novel focuses on the lives of her very different protagonists, who initially have little in common but who will soon be united through the travelling librarian scheme. I loved the descriptions of the remote Appalachian mountains during the depression era, and felt like I was there in spirit, riding alongside these brave women who feared little and who stood out from the typical picture of the perfect wife at the time. Margery, who is from a poor and abusive family background has never married and is not afraid to forge her own path in life, caring little about what others think of her. She is an unlikely friend for Alice, a young English woman who has recently arrived as the new wife of Bennett Van Cleve, the son of the town’s wealthy but ruthless mine owner. But Alice has problems of her own, and the librarian scheme gives her the purpose she is so desperately lacking in her housewife role. Then there is Izzy, crippled by polio, who finds that riding and delivering books is one thing she can do despite her disability. Each woman has an interesting background, and I soon warmed to each and every one of them, invested in their fate.
It didn’t take long for THE GIVER OF STARS to steal my heart, and soon I was laughing and crying and didn’t want to put the book down! What can be better than a book about books, and the joy they can spread among people? I loved hearing about the families living in the Appalachian mountains, whose lives were changed by books, empowered by literacy. It warmed my heart! Of course it wasn’t long until things started going wrong, and men started feeling threatened by those strong, smart and brave females. Some drama ensued, and by now well and truly invested in the story my emotions also ran high as each woman must fight her own battle to remain true to herself.
I admit that I enjoyed the first ¾ of the book more than the later part, in which the focus is more on drama and romance than the librarian scheme and the atmospheric setting I had enjoyed so much earlier. Personally, I would have preferred a bit more grit, which is a common gripe I have with women’s fiction, which so often descends into melodrama at the end as it is trying to tie everything up into neat little bows. But I’m sure that readers who like a feel-good read and don’t mind some romance thrown in will most likely disagree with me on that – it’s just not my thing. That said, my overall feeling was still one of enjoyment and awe, and I immediately read up on the librarian scheme, which was fascinating and inspiring, especially some of the old photos that came up in my Google search. There are a lot of issues being explored through Moyes’ characters, which were mostly interesting, even though at times I felt that the drums were being beaten a bit too loudly to get the many messages home.
All in all, if you love books, plucky female leads and a feel-good story, THE GIVER OF STARS should definitely be on your TBR list. Moyes skilfully brings her characters and her atmospheric setting to life and explores a fascinating chapter of American history that will warm every booklover’s heart. My cold black soul would have loved to see a bit more grit and controversy at the end, but this will present no problems for readers who like things tied in a neat and pretty bow and walk away feeling that the world overall is a good place where magic can still happen.
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