THE GIVER OF STARS by Jojo Moyes (2019)



March 2021

How exciting that we have TWO BOOKS to read about this month!  By some gift from the Universe, both books about the same obscure subject were published within months of each other.  I’ve found no evidence that Moyes and Richardson collaborated in any way (and in fact Richardson, who published her book first, was not happy about the Moyes book).  However it happened, we readers are the beneficiaries:  our reading pleasure is doubled by TWO wonderfully written heartwarming stories that will stay with us for a long time.  It’s no mystery why they continue to be popular.

Both stories center around a government program called the Pack Horse Library Project.  It was a WPA project that Eleanor Roosevelt created, geared specifically to benefit women and children from 1935 to 1943.  The program focused mainly on counties in eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian area, which was already less developed when the Depression hit hard.  People in those areas were scattered through rough countryside with no access to libraries.  Many were illiterate.

If the men had a job, it was usually in the coal mines.  Mine owners cared little about the safety of their mines or if miners were killed.  They also tied the miners and families to their “company stores” with inflated prices, and in some cases owned the homes in which mining families lived.  Pay was low, and it was hard to feed their families.  Some people did starve.  For many men, the only way out of a hard life was death, either in a mining accident or from illness such as black lung disease.

The Pack Horse Library project was staffed mostly by women who rode a horse or mule into the remote areas with a bag full of donated books, scrapbooks, and magazines.  They were paid $28 a month which certainly helped their families, and in some cases was the only income for a family.

The women faced a variety of dangers on a daily basis.  Their animal could have an accident and be unable to get them home.  Weather, especially in winter and rain, made the trip treacherous and cold or wet.  There was always the danger of being attacked by a drunk or aggressive armed male.  The librarian job bore little resemblance to that of librarians today, but their courage and commitment empowered them in other ways.

Once the families on the route understood the service and overcame objections that some (usually men) had, it was very popular.  By offering a Bible, a magazine or scrapbook with recipes, health remedies, repair instructions or other useful information, people saw how useful it was to learn to read and learn new things that met their needs.  Children loved the stories all children read and love when copies were able to be found.

In The Giver of Stars, we meet Alice at a meeting to recruit librarians for the new program.  She met and married her husband, Bennett, in England.  He was handsome, nice, and well off, and she was looking for an escape from her family.  He took her to his home in a Kentucky town, where it was difficult for her as an outsider to make friends.  The women and the restrictive way they lived bored her, anyway.  Bennett’s father, a very controlling man who ran a coal mine, lived in the same house.  Their maid took care of household chores, leaving Alice with nothing to do all day.  By the time of the recruitment meeting, she was sick of confinement, bored, and ready to get out and do something interesting.  She defied both men by taking on the librarian job.

As Alice settled into the job, she met the challenges of being a Pack Horse Librarian and became close friends with the other women librarians, who were interesting and varied.  She came to realize that she could not stay married to a man who would or could not consummate their marriage, and found herself falling in love with the man who owned the building that housed the library materials.

When her father-in-law beat her, she realized her situation was truly unhealthy and intolerable, moved in with Margery (another librarian with an unsavory family history), and eventually planned to return to England…not that she wanted to.  That would have been admitting failure to her family, that her marriage and move to the U.S. was just one more of her hare-brained ideas.

Did she stay or did she go?  Did she find real love at last?  You’ll have to read The Giver of Stars to find out.  (The book title is the title of a poem by Amy Lowell reproduced on p. 154.)

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek takes place in the same environment:  coal mining country in Kentucky.  Cussy was 19 years old, taking care of her coal miner father who had black lung disease, but was still able to work.  Her mother was dead, so she ran the household.  Her father was anxious for her to marry so she’d have someone to take care of her when he died.  She resisted the idea of marriage, and rejected any offers until her father forced her to marry a disgusting specimen who beat her horribly, then dropped dead.  Cussy vowed never to marry again…but did she keep that vow?

In that area, there wasn’t an unlimited choice of potential mates, but Cussy had a liability that further limited her prospects:  she’s blue.  No, she’s not sad, her skin was blue.  She was thought to be the last living person with this characteristic in the area…or was she?

The author explains the genetic cause of Cussy’s blue skin color in the Author’s Note section of the book.  It’s a real, but extremely rare, condition called methemoglobinemia caused by an enzyme deficiency that reduces oxygen capacity.  While the person can live normally, their skin appears to be blue, and their blood is a chocolate brown.

In the book, the local doctor was determined to find the cause and “fix” her to be white.  However, the “fix” caused nausea and headaches for Cussy to the point where she ultimately decided it’s better to be blue and her true self.

Cussy’s blueness made her DIFFERENT, which was not an asset in that culture.  She was classified as “colored,” and was lumped in with African Americans in terms of places where she was allowed to be and what she was allowed to do.  The “NO COLORED” signs applied to her as much as to the African Americans.  Laws of the time forbade interracial marriage, and few men were willing to defy the law.  After her first horrific experience that nearly killed her, Cussy did not plan to marry again, anyway.

Like Alice, Cussy became a Pack Horse Librarian.  Like Alice, she enjoyed riding her mule to the various homes amid the beautiful natural environment and helping the various families in that capacity.  She encountered some discrimination issues, but over time, those resolved themselves.

She was able to make life easier with the income.  When her father died in a mine accident, the Librarian salary was her sole income, enabling her to maintain her independence.  Like Alice, her job enabled her to grow, empowered her to become more confident, and to help others when she could.  It was also a source of personal pride.

These two books present a similar view of a little-known place at a particular time and shows us how important one small, underfunded program was to a particular group of people.  Anyone who doubts that reading can change lives should read these books.

They also give readers a window into the reality and costs of coal mining; attitudes of the time toward people who were “different;” and the range of what marriages were like (women were generally expected to obey their husbands and sometimes endured domestic violence).

The main difference between these two books is how the main characters—one from a well-off English family versus one born into an impoverished Kentucky family—performed the same work, and the effect it had on them personally as well as on those they served.  I liked the characters very much, and the stories are so interesting that these books, once started, are difficult to put down.

I wasn’t keen to read these books based on the subject matter, but I also realized there had to be a reason the books remained popular for so long.  Once I started reading, I knew the reason.  They’re heartwarming—a term I don’t like to use because it seems trite—but we also like to see good characters overcome adversity and root for them to the end.  Along the way we also learn a lot of historical bits, and that’s always valuable.  I recommend both books to readers who love to read about women and books.

Both books will be available at the Grover Beach Community Library.

–Donna Rueff–