The Giver of Stars: A Novel by Jojo Moyes
Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve, hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.
The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.
What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity, and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.
Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic–a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.
About the author:
Jojo Moyes is a British novelist.
Moyes studied at Royal Holloway, University of London. She won a bursary financed by The Independent newspaper to study journalism at City University and subsequently worked for The Independent for 10 years. In 2001 she became a full-time novelist.
Moyes’ novel Foreign Fruit won the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) Romantic Novel of the Year in 2004.
She is married to journalist Charles Arthur and has three children.
Reviews about the novel The Giver of Stars
- Sarah Faichney:
Blimey! I was tearful by the end of the author’s note at the beginning! I loved the literary references and passages quoted throughout – so much so that I ended up down a Lloyd C Douglas rabbit hole which culminated in me reading an eBook version of “The Robe”, then scouring eBay and purchasing a hard copy from 1947! In “The Giver Of Stars”, Jojo Moyes has given us something magical. The book is beautifully written and meticulously researched. As a library campaigner and community activist, the story hit me right in the feels. Everything about it is wonderful! The characters are so lifelike that I feel I know them personally. This is a novel to cherish, read again and again, and a gift to everyone you know. I’ve already ordered a hardback version for my friend’s birthday. This book is very special indeed. There are insufficient stars in the Universe to give it a high enough rating. A first-class piece of work from an author at the very top of her game. Stunning!
Thanks to Penguin UK-Michael Joseph and NetGalley for an advanced reader’s copy of this ebook The Giver of Stars, which I freely chose to review.
Jojo Moyes was a name familiar to me (from bestseller lists, movie adaptations, bookshops…) but she was one of the authors I knew by name but hadn’t yet read. When I saw this book on offer at NetGalley and read the description and the fact that it was based on a real historical scheme, the 1930s Horseback Librarians of Kentucky, I thought this was a perfect opportunity to familiarise myself with her writing. As a book lover, I am always fond of stories about books and libraries, and the historical angle was a bonus for me.
The Horseback Librarians of Kentucky was one of the projects set up by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), a New Deal Agency established as an attempt to provide work for victims of the Great Depression. In this case, women who could ride (horses, mules…) set up the equivalent of a mobile library, and offered books and reading materials to their neighbors, reaching even those who lived deep in the mountains, too far and too busy to regularly visit the town. In an area as beautiful as it was poor (and it seems it still remains fairly poor and under-resourced), the levels of literacy were minimal, and the librarians went beyond the simple delivery of ebooks, becoming a lifeline to many of the families they regularly visited. Although I had read about the WPA and some of their projects, I wasn’t familiar with this one, and it does make for a fascinating setting to the story.
Moyes usually writes contemporary fiction (with more than a touch of romance), so this novel breaks new ground. As I haven’t read any of her previous novels, I cannot make comparisons, but I had a great time reading this novel, which combines an easy and fluid writing style (with some wonderful descriptions of the Kentucky mountains), strong and compelling characters, especially the librarians, with a plot full of adventures, sad and joyful events, romance, and even a possible murder. This is a tale of sisterhood, of women fighting against all odds (society’s prejudices, difficult conditions, nature, illness, domestic violence, evil…), of the power of ebooks The Giver of Stars, and of a time and a place that are far from us and yet familiar (unfortunately, some things haven’t changed that much).
What did I like, in particular? Many things. I am not an expert on Kentucky or on the historical period, so you must take this with a pinch of salt, but I loved the atmosphere and the period feel. I enjoyed the description of the feelings of the women as they rode their routes, particularly because by telling the story from the point of view of two of the women, Margery, who’s lived there all her life, and Alice, who just arrived from England and totally unfamiliar with the area and the lifestyle, we get the familiarity and the newness and learn that the heartfelt experience goes beyond being comfortable and at home. The mountains have an effect on these women, and at a point when Alice’s life is collapsing around her, give her the strength to go on.
Both, the beauty of untamed nature and the comfort of literature help give meaning to the lives of the protagonists and those who come in contact with them. Of course, not everybody appreciates those, and, in fact, the true villains of the story are people (mostly men, but not only, and I’m not going to reveal the plot in detail) who don’t care for literature and don’t respect nature. (There is an environmental aspect to the story as well, the coalmining industry caring little for the workers or the land if it got in the way of the profit margin).
I also fell for the characters. Margery is magnetic from the beginning: a woman whose father was violent, an abuser, and an alcoholic, with a reputation that has tainted her as well; she is determined to live life her own way, help others, and not let anybody tell her what to do (and that includes the man she loves, who is rather nice). Although the novel is written in the third person, we see many of the events from her point of view, and although she is a woman who guards her emotions tightly and does not scare easy, she is put to the test, suffers a great deal, and she softens a bit and becomes more willing to give up some of her independence in exchange for a life richer in relationships and connections by the end of the story. Alice, on the other hand, starts as a naïve newcomer, with little common sense, that makes rushed decisions and believes in fairy tales. She thinks Bennett, her husband, is the charming prince who’s come to rescue her from an uncaring family, but she soon discovers she has changed a prison for another.
Her transformation is, in some ways, the complete opposite of that of Margery. She becomes more independent, learns to care less about appearances and opinions, and discovers what is truly important for her.
In a way, the librarians provide a catalog of different models of womanhood and also of diversity (we have a woman who lives alone with her male relatives, smokes, drinks, and is outspoken; a young girl with a limp due to polio who lives under the shadow of her mother; an African American woman who gave up on her dreams to look after her brother, and who is the only trained librarian; and a widow from the mountains, saved by the power of books and by her relationship with other women), and although there are male characters —both, enablers, like Fred and Sven, and out and out enemies— these are not as well defined or important to the story (well, they set things in motion, but they are not at the heart of the story).
I was quite curious about Bennett, Alice’s husband, whom I found a bit of a puzzle (he does not understand his wife, for sure, but he is not intentionally bad, and I was never sure he really knew himself), and would have liked to know more about the women whose points of view we were not privy to, but I enjoyed getting to know them all and sharing in their adventures. (Oh, and I loved the ending, which offers interesting glimpses into some of the characters we don’t hear so much about).
And yes, adventures there are aplenty. I’ve seen this book described as an epic, and it is not a bad word. There are floods, a murder trial, stories of corruption and shady business deals, bigotry and scandal, a couple of ebooks that play important parts (a little blue book, and, one of my favorite reads like a young girl, Little Women, and its role made me smile), recipes, libraries, births, deaths, confrontations, violence (not extreme), and romance (no erotica or explicit sex scenes). This being a very conservative (and in some ways isolated society), the examples of what was considered acceptable male and female behavior might seem old-fashioned even for the time, but, as the #MeToo movement has reminded us, some things are slow to change.
Was there anything I didn’t like? Well, no, but people need to be aware that this is a light read, a melodrama, and although it provides an inspirational tale of sisterhood, it does not offer an in-depth analysis of the ills of the society at the time. The villains are presented as bad individuals, pure evil, and we learn nothing about them other than they are bad. Although many other important topics are hinted at and appear in the background, this is the story of this particular individual and not a full depiction of the historical period, but it is a great yarn and very enjoyable.
The author provides information on her note to the reader about the historical background and how she became interested in the story, and I’ve read some reviews highlighting the existence of other books on the topic, that I wouldn’t mind reading either. For me, this book brings to light an interesting episode of American history and of women’s history, creating a fascinating narrative that illustrates the lives of women in the Kentucky Mountains in the 1930s, with characters that I got to care for, suffer and rejoice with. Yes, I did shed the odd tear. And I’d recommend it to anybody who enjoys historical fiction, women’s fiction, and Moyes’s fans. This might be a departure from her usual writing, but, at least for me, it’s a welcome one.
Alice married to get away from her life in England, only to find herself in a cold relationship in America far from everything that she knows and understands, until one day she volunteers to join the newly established ‘traveling library’. Here she finds the oddballs of her small town and they form an unlikely friendship group; their library opens a new world and an appreciation of reading to the children of the town and the people living in the surrounding area.
The Giver of Stars novel explores a host of subjects; (love and finding your “tribe” through genuine friendship.
It also highlights how reading affects people in a positive way: giving hope, comfort, and the power to make informed decisions) it was a privilege to read.
- Jacqui P:
I pre-ordered The Giver of Stars novel and was eagerly anticipating beginning to read it, envious of those who read it before me. I can’t remember looking forward as much to a book since years ago waiting for the postman to deliver the latest Harry Potter into my hands. This had the same sort of vibe about it for me. The scene-setting took a while, but once the story took off, I loved it. Jojo Moyes is one of the few writers I will jettison a current read for and I have loved almost everything she has written. I would say it does, thankfully, live up to the hype and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would say, yes it is timeless and people with great, interesting, and feisty women all of whose stories and journeys are meaningful. Baileyville in Kentucky and the scenery and mountains are vividly drawn. I enjoyed too the little snatches of poetry and quotes from other books threaded through a story about bringing joy through the written word. Clever, compelling, and, above all, so accessible and readable. I can already see the film in my imagination. Great storytelling. Thank you SO much!
As a fan of Kim Michelle Richardson and her THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK, I was curious about a British author’s treatment of Kentucky library women delivering books to the backcountry by horse or mule in the years leading up to WW II. I wondered about how a British romance writer would tumble to and do justice for these unique women in a time and place hard to “get right”, even for Americans. Then I saw a BuzzFeed piece suggesting Moyes had unfair help. It turns out the Richardson’s manuscript not only came first but was reviewed for some time before by editors at Random House, the very publisher for Moyes. The Buzzfeed article summarizes a number of specific details in Richardson’s novel that might have been lifted into this Moyes novel. This background did not deter me from purchasing a hardcover copy of THE GIVER OF STARS and reading it first word to last. The cover jacket is gorgeous.
But GIVER OF STARS was hard to get through for several reasons. The main character and co-heroine comes from a cozy but rigid and oppressive home in England, meets a young American, marries him, and lands in a small town in 1937 Kentucky. Her husband’s family owns the biggest coal mine around. But her husband and his widowed father are just as oppressive and cold as the home she left. She becomes a book woman and mixes with other women riding out to deliver library books to poor people in the mountains. So far so good. But then some problems creep in.
Right off the bat in the first sentence of the first chapter, JJM puts eucalyptus trees in Kentucky, where they have never and never will grow. One hard frost kills them. Other flaws abound. Most of the time most of the locals speak in proper English, often in nice little speeches and in a far more organized manner than folks did there and then. Some British English creeps into the locals’ word choices. The novel’s ending turns on chest bruising still evident on a clothed body found four months after death out in the wilderness–not possible in that wet weather or terrain. The body leads to a murder charge against one of the book women and a trial. The trial proceedings feel thin and artificial.
In addition to the specific elements seemingly copied from Richardson’s BOOK WOMAN and addressed by others, JJM’s story arc follows that of the main character in the earlier novel: a young woman in a bad marriage finds a way out by becoming a mule-riding traveling librarian. Along the way, she finds the love of her life. JJM could have been more original here too.
The other romance elements–and there are several more, with both good and bad outcomes–are the core of the story. But they are smothered by the borrowed topic and other flaws. This whole novel might have worked in a location more “at home” to Moyes and without her admitted rushing to get this out soon after Richardson’s treatment of identical subjects.
I believe that this could truly be one of the best, if not the best book I have read. It transported me to the mountains, it took me into the small town and I felt like I was involved in a western film! A remarkable departure from previous material. Jo-Jo Moyes is an extremely gifted author. I am sleep deprived and red-eyed as I cried with emotion and was compelled to finish it in 2 nights!