Once again, I was sucked in by my library’s “Lucky Day” books. The Giver of Stars (2019) was just sitting on the shelf looking all shiny and new, and I couldn’t resist. The blurb said something about the friendship of women and library books, and that was enough for me. I’ve only read one other book by JoJo Moyes, Me Before You, and I enjoyed it more than I had expected. I was more than willing to give a second book by Moyes a try.
The book takes place in depression-era Kentucky. Alice was always something of a nuisance to her family in England. She falls in love with Bennett Van Cleve when he comes to visit, and she’s happy to escape her family home, marry him, and follow him to Kentucky. But when she gets there, it’s not everything she expected. Instead of an exciting American city, they go back to a very small town in the mountains of Kentucky. The home is nice, but is shared with her overbearing father-in-law. Bennett allows his father to control most aspects of their life, and their adjacent bedrooms with paper thin walls does nothing for their sex life.
As time goes on, and Bennett’s feelings for her seem to wane, Alice grows more and more miserable. At a town meeting, she hears about the Pack Horse Library Project, funded by the Works Progress Administration. Alice volunteers to help. She meets Margery O’Hare, a strong, unconventional woman who teaches her the routes through the mountains. Margery’s father was an abusive alcoholic involved in a longstanding feud with the McCullough family. Margery was relieved when her father finally died and vowed never to get married.
The other women that work at the library include: Beth, another tough, unconventional woman; Izzy, struggling with a bad limp from polio but forced to join the crew by her mother; and Sophia, a “colored” woman that Margery knew as a child. Sophia does not ride out, but organizes the books and ledgers in the safety of the building.
There’s a lot of drama in the small town of Baileyville. Margery actively but secretly fights against the mine, owned by Alice’s father-in-law, making an enemy of him. Margery is also attacked by a very drunk Clem McCullough on one of her routes but manages to get away. Alice is badly beaten by her father-in-law when she refuses to stop working at the library and she flees to live with Margery.
At the same time, Alice discovers that she has feelings for Fred Guisler, the man whose land and horses they use for the library. Margery discovers she’s pregnant with Sven’s child. She loves Sven but does not want a child or marriage.
When the body of Clem McCullough is found, dead for months up in the mountains with a library book near his head, Alice’s father-in-law makes sure suspicion falls on Margery. She is arrested and has to give birth in jail. For awhile, things look pretty bleak and she gives her baby to Sven and tells him to leave. Then the library women are able to make contact with Clem’s daughter, Verna McCullough. She is heavily pregnant and was obviously both physically and sexually abused by her father. She testifies that her father was returning the library book when he died, making his death appear to be more of an accident than homicide. Margery is set free and everything ends pretty happily ever after.
I found this book to be consistently interesting and fun to read. I like the idea of female friendships giving women strength and opening up new horizons. I’m all for a little feminism. I also love the idea of literacy and books helping those who wouldn’t normally have access to such things. I liked and cared about the characters. I even found myself crying at one point, even though I have a cold and crying was the last thing I needed.
However, this book wasn’t perfect. The characters did not feel true to the time or place, more like modern women transplanted into 1930’s Kentucky. I’m sure there was the odd progressive feminist in Kentucky in the 1930’s but there wasn’t enough character development to make them believable. Many of the characters had only one defining characteristic. Margery grew up in a severely abusive home with an alcoholic father. She vows never to marry but has no problem finding a sweet, loving man for a committed relationship. In fact, the love interest men, Sven and Fred, were unbelievably patient, kind, and supportive. Certainly not a bad thing, except they didn’t feel real. Oddly, this book often reminded me of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. There is a courageous heroine, and a story with easy-to-identify bad and good guys. The characters are likable and the stories can be fun, but you never shake the feeling that you’re in a cartoon version of the Wild West.
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