Let’s begin with a tiny history lesson: in 1935, Eleanor Roosevelt came up with the Pack Horse Library Project as a solution to illiteracy during the Great Depression. 63 counties in the state of Kentucky were left without access to public libraries, and for a time, the lack of education became a critical problem. To resolve this, the Works Progress Administration oversaw deliveries of books by women librarians on horseback from 1935 to 1943.
It’s on this stage that Jojo Moyes’ latest novel, The Giver of Stars, is set. Four young women become packhorse librarians to the sleepy mining town of Baileyville, Kentucky: Alice Van Cleve, an Englishwoman who married the handsome son of an American mining boss to escape her stifling life in England, only to discover that she had traded one prison for another; Margery O’Hare, an unstoppable force of a woman who was once the daughter of the most despised man in town; Beth Pinker, a rebel child who has a secret smoking habit, dreams of traveling the world, and a cheeky, irrepressible personality that livens up their foursome; and Izzy Brady, a polio survivor who finds both physical strength, independence, and pride in her job at the library.
While each of the women receive their fair share of disapproval and even hostility, their efforts soon begin to affect change in the town of Baileyville, one book at a time.
Holding the reins
The main thread of the story is carried mostly by Alice and Margery. You’re drawn into Alice’s marital troubles and her longing for a place in the world that accepts her, as opinionated and adventurous as she is. She finds a figure to emulate in Margery, who couldn’t give a fig about what the entire town thought of her so long as she knew she was doing right by her own judgment.
The dynamic between these two women ripens as they begin to lean on each other more. Alice becomes a constant, unwavering friend to Margery, smoothing her rough edges and allowing her to embrace help and vulnerability at key moments; and Margery gives Alice space and opportunities to be unapologetic about who she is. Under their leadership, the Baileyville library flourishes, and their bold choices ripple through the town through the books they deliver and the examples that they set.
A trotting pace
Pace-wise, the story trots along like a steady mule, taking the reader on the scenic route, pointing out the view from the mountains of Kentucky and giving you ample time to get to know each house and character. The Giver of Stars immerses you in the same small-town drama that you can find in a period novel like Anne of Green Gables, but with plenty more purpose, and later, urgency. Little Women is also another book I could compare this to, not least because both stories have four female protagonists with distinct personalities (bonus points because Little Women as a book plays its own interesting role in the events of The Giver of Stars!).
Jojo Moyes’ dialogue is also a gift in itself. I confess to getting fired up whenever the women get going; more than once I’ve cheered out loud at Beth sassing fundamentalist pastors (“What God has put together, no man shall put asunder.” “Good job she’s a lady then!”) and Mrs. Brady neatly putting the town’s men in their place (“It’s books, Mr. Simmonds. The kind you learned with when you were a boy. But then I seem to remember you were more keen on tweaking girls’ pigtails than you were reading.”)!
Running a track of issues
With such a premise, The Giver of Stars dives into a number of issues. It touches on poverty, environmentalist and mining issues, racism, disability, and all manner of inequalities present during the 1930s.
A consistent theme in the book is the treatment of women. The Giver of Stars provides numerous lens for readers to peer through: how we view women in the community, how we view women in the home, job opportunities available to them, how they are allowed to express themselves sexually, and even how women are judged by a court of law.
To be a packhorse librarian symbolises being a person utterly contradictory to what a woman “should be” at the time: a person who is well-read, outspoken, physically strong, independent, and fearless. To many, girls like the packhorse librarian should not be allowed to exist, much less go around influencing other women to be like them.
The most apparent antagonist is Geoffrey Van Cleve, Alice’s father-in-law, who holds sway as the owner of the local coal mine, and so has certain ideas about how the town should be run. A packhorse library staffed by his daughter-in-law and a criminal’s daughter is most certainly not part of his vision, and he pulls out all the stops to take down the librarians professionally and personally. (Trigger warning: expect a couple of scenes depicting violence against women and animal cruelty.)
Of course, Van Cleve is only one man. The true enemy are the collective group of people who reject the library and what it stands for: literacy, education, and the empowerment a little learning gives to the oppressed.
Women go from reading recipes to romance novels and books like Married Love, and men are upset to discover that their wives being more vocal about how they want to be treated and pleasured. Illiterate families learn how to read and are slowly able to comprehend – and reject – offers from mining companies that steal the land under their very feet. The librarians and their allies grow in influence and in number throughout the book, holding firm to the integrity of their job – “They’re just books, Henry Porteous! How do you think the great scholars of old learned?”
The women – Margery and Alice especially – learn that there are grave consequences when you try to bring change to people who are “[hostile] towards any outside influence”. But here’s the good news: through the efforts of real-life women like the book’s protagonists, the Pack Horse Library Project as a whole was historically a success.
The ride home
The Giver of Stars is a rich, heartwarming tale for anyone who loves books and whose lives have been changed by reading.
This book will make you wake up every day grateful for the fact that you can read andhave access to reading material. These remarkable women also encourage us to think beyond ourselves and consider how we can extend that gift to others who still live in need of it.
The Giver of Stars will be available soon at Fully Booked. Email us to reserve a copy in advance.
Reina is a professional content writer for lifestyle, health, and most things geek. When not at work, she reads everything from YA dystopia, to history books, to tarot cards. Support her lifelong love affair with words over at reinabambao.com!
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]