Monthly Archives: November 2019

GIVER OF STARS: a novel

6-minute audio with former pack horse librarian

Alice asked Margery, “If you’ve never been further than. . . 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? ” The answer of course is because of books. Books that brought stories of Africa to Appalachia. . .

In the midst of the Great Depression, Eastern Kentucky was among those states most severely economically impacted. Thirty percent of the state was illiterate. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative, The Pack Horse Library project, implemented by the Works Progress Administration in 1934 brought hope of a better future through literacy. The project provided jobs to local pack horse riders, mostly women, with a salary of  $28 a month ($495 in today’s dollars).  The project ended in 1943 with the ramp up to World War II and the elimination of the WPA projects.

The Pack Horse program was not immediately accepted by the mountain folks. Literacy threatened the status quo.  “Families should be reading the Bible. Nothing else.”  “We are struggling to control what influences are coming in and out of our own homes.”

Jojo Moyes, known for her numerous heartwarming romance novels, several made into movies (Me Before You) has written her first historical fiction featuring the Pack Horse Library project. Fans of her romance fiction will not be disappointed.

GIVER OF STARS, set in eastern Kentucky during the Great Depression, features a coterie of fictional pack horse librarians – Margery O’Hare, the daughter of a cruel and deceitful bootlegger heads the group. A woman comfortable in her own skin, outspoken and independent; preferring life alone in the wilds of the mountains. A woman stained by her family legacy. Alice Van Cleve, the daughter of wealthy English parents, newly wed to Bennett Van Cleve, the  son of a cruel American coal mine baron; her new life filled with coal dust and pack horses not racing thoroughbreds and Mint Juleps. Izzy, the reclusive daughter of local parents; the victim of polio. Beth, the daughter of a local farmer, and Sophia, the African-American sister of a crippled miner and a trained librarian from Louisville.

The town residents and the folks up  and down the hollers and along the creek beds include a destitute and distrustful father struggling to raise his motherless daughters, a few pompous asses of the human kind, most notably, Alice’s father-in-law, and a miner with a heart of gold and a determination to marry the wild child, Margery.

The novel is packed tightly with a whole slew of themes that are examined closely and intimately at times; some painful, some joyous, most true-to-life and a couple dragged out too long. Overall an enjoyable read that brings the reader into the beauty of the mountains at a time when nature is threatened by mining and the isolated residents face a paradigm shift in long-held traditions, gender roles and racial discrimination.

Jojo Moyes and “Giver of Stars” and a second novel by Kim Michelle Richardson entitled “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” were published in 2019 within months of each other and have been the subject of some controversy. Some critics feel elements of “Giver of Stars” closely resemble those in “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek”. Both novels cover the Pack Horse Librarian project. Be that as it may – both novels have been very popular and Richardson’s novel is on my TBR list.

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OLIVE, AGAIN : Olive Kitteridge #2

Olive Kitteridge is from Maine. Several of my friends, after having read Olive Kitteridge when it appeared in 2008, thought Olive was too stern and taciturn. Have they ever met anyone from Maine? An old Mainer friend once told me that Moxie was the greatest beverage in the world (and actually gave me a bottle to try.) I rank it right up there with cough syrup and kerosene. “Acquired taste,” he said. But I digress.

If you know anyone from Maine, you probably noticed that they don’t suffer fools gladly, don’t waste time with long drawn out dialogue, are fiercely independent, have an innate kindness, generous spirit, and are best known to be smiling with a puckered-up lip arrogant expression.

So, don’t judge Olive too harshly. She comes by it naturally. Ayuh (yup anywhere outside Maine). It’s just that she is a bit overboard with her honesty and “just tell us what you really think” personality. You don’t have to read Olive Kitteridge  first, but I recommend it.

Olive, Again picks up a month after Oliver Kitteridge left off. Henry Kitteridge has been dead two years and her son, Christopher, lives in New York City with a new wife and a houseful of children. Olive, now in her 70’s, still lives in Crosby, Maine. If we were to ask her why, she would probably utter her exasperated trademark phrase, “Phooey!” Walking away, she would flip her hand over her head in dismissal.

The point of the new novel; Olive, the unfiltered, presumptuous, and dismissive busybody of Crosby  has bumped up against a much stronger opponent – old age. She’s beginning to realize that she has been a smart-ass all her life and it is just possible she doesn’t have the answer to everything after all. Stress the word – beginning to realize. She’s facing unwanted and uncontrollable changes in her life. One thing she never loses is her “Olive-ness”.

The novel is comprised of 13 interconnected stories of drama and emotion that transpire over the next ten years; some featuring Olive and some she slips through tangentially. Each vignette dives deeply into the troubled behind the scenes lives of everyday people. People that Olive has crossed paths with in her teaching career or lived among for years.

Don’t be turned off by the threat of a gloomy book. It is a book full of acceptance, compassion, and resilience. A struggle to accept aloneness as opposed to loneliness. A struggle to find answers to the meaning of one’s life and the answers to why bad things happen and how we come to accept ourselves.

My favorite chapter, The Poet. Olive is now 82 and walking with a cane.  She is having a lonely breakfast at a local diner. She sits and stares out at the water and admiring the beauty of the land. The waitress oblivious to her presence after taking her order. A young woman enters the diner and sits staring out the window with a deep concentration etched on her face. Olive recognizes her as a former student who has returned to Cosby; a woman, now, who has become a world  famous poet.

Excerpt from The Poet

Olive placed her fork on her plate…and walked to Andrea’s booth. “Hello Andrea, I know who you are.”…There was a long moment of silence – before Olive said, “So. You’re famous now.”

Andrea kept staring at Olive…Finally she said, “Mrs. Kitteridge?”

[They chat for a while with Olive asking Andrea questions but interrupting her with answers to the questions from Olive’s own life. Olive tells Andrea that she reads about her life on Facebook and Andrea is surprised she would be interested. Olive asks if Andrea enjoyed a recent business trip to Oslo. Andrea replied she gets lonely on those trips with little time to sight-see.]

Olive wasn’t sure she’d heard her right… “Well, you were probably always lonely.” [Olive stares at Andrea and remembers the young girl from a poor Catholic family, one of eight children, who always looked so sad and preferred her own company.]

Andrea looked at her then, gave her a long look that confused [Olive] somewhat; the girl’s eyes… seemed to break into a tenderness around their corners as she looked at Olive. The girl said nothing.

[Andrea attentively listens to Olive talk about her life, the ravages and indignities of old age, the recent death of her second husband and the distant relationship between Olive and her son, Christopher. Andrea politely asks why Olive thought children were needles to the heart. When Olive has run out of steam, she rises from Andrea’s table to leave.] Olive wiped her fingers on a napkin, “You can put that in a poem. All yours.” [And she did. A mysterious person slipped a copy of the poetry journal with a post-it flagging the new poem to Olive’s attention under her door.]

Accosted

… Who taught me math thirty-four years ago / terrified me and is now terrified herself / sat before me at the breakfast counter / all white whiskered / told me I had always been lonely / had no idea she was speaking of herself . . .

It was all there. . . the poem’s theme, pounded home again and again, was that she – Olive – was the lonely, terrified one. It finished, Use it for a poem, she said / All yours.

[Olive tossed the magazine in the trash.] “Andrea, this poem stinks.” [But Olive knew better. It was true.]

I thought Olive, Again was the better of the two books and I loved them both. Not a bad read for any person facing the indignity of sagging skin, faulty “towers”, leaking pipes, and the sense that you don’t matter anymore. Loved it. Restored my sense of humor and purpose in old age; do the best you can do with what you got. Highly recommend for book club discussion.

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