An impulsive British woman, her band of librarians on horseback, a punishing winter in Southern Appalachia, moonshiners with itchy trigger fingers and the town’s coal tycoon just begging them to shoot: What could possibly go wrong?
Thus sets the stage for “The Giver of Stars,” by “Me Before You” author Jojo Moyes. Based on the true story of The Pack Horse Library initiative — a Works Progress Administration project that ran from 1935 to 1943 and turned women and their steeds into bookmobiles — Moyes’ characters travel into the remote Eastern Kentucky mountains to deliver learning to the most isolated residents.
It is not the fate protagonist Alice imagined for herself when handsome American Bennett Van Cleve strode into Surrey, England, and whisked her across the Atlantic. She was quite sure that life in the bluegrass state would be “a year-long Derby Day,” but Depression-era Baileyville is a few mint juleps short. Not only is small-town life stifling, but her husband’s golden boy charm does not transfer to the bedroom, and her father-in-law — the coal king with a violent nature — is employing questionable practices in his mine and acting even worse at home. Alice and her stiff upper lip are ready to accept this lot until the pack horse program comes recruiting.
Alice has her britches on before her husband can say neigh, following the group’s bold leader Margery O’Hare up into the mountains. Margery — who is trying to shake her family’s feuding, fighting and hard drinking reputation — is blazing her own trails with an appealing blend of feminism and free-spiritedness. She’s the catalyst for change that Alice, and the isolated mountain families they are serving, desperately need. Together with three other librarians, including Sophia Kenworth, an African American woman whose brother was injured in the mines, they find a room of their own: a library that provides inspiration and escape.
But in town, their work is questioned, especially by the elder Van Cleve who is certain Margery is spreading a pro-union message along with those copies of “Little Women.” Cries of impressionable young minds and rumors that the “English girl is really a Communist” and that a girl armed with a book “has grown hair on the back of her hands,” start growing louder. But they are matched by the bellows that the children following them down the streets let out, “begging for something to read.”
The flames of learning, the sparks set by these venturesome women, threaten to ignite the town, but if the wind blows the right way, they might set it on a new and better course.
The first time they ride through the mountains together, Alice asks Margery, “If you’ve never been further east than — where was it, Lewisburg? — how is it you know so much about animals in Africa?” Margery yanks her mule to a halt. “Are you seriously asking me that question?” she demands. The answer, of course, is because of books. Books that brought stories of Africa to Appalachia and books that continue to bring us all a slice of the world.
Though she made her mark writing contemporary romance, Moyes proves just as adept at historical fiction, gracefully infusing her story with strong, memorable female characters and a sprinkling of men who can make a “heart flutter like a clean sheet on a long line.” “The Giver of Stars” is a celebration of love, but also of reading, of knowledge, of female friendship, of the beauty of our most rural corners and our enduring American grit: the kind of true grit that can be found in the hills of Kentucky and on the pages of this inspiring book.
”The Giver of Stars”
By Jojo Moyes
Pamela Dorman. 400 pages. $28.