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.