Eric Boss reviews THE GIVER OF STARS

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
Pamela Dorman

This book is, quite simply, beautiful. The author displays her considerable skills in storytelling expertly, as those who are familiar with her previous works can attest. Written in a style devoid of florid or overblown rhetoric, the narrative moves briskly but with satisfying detail and character development. In otherwords, beautifully.

The atmosphere of the Great Depression is palpable, the sense of life’s harshness and the reactions of plain people, both good and bad, feel genuine. It’s gratifying to find a book with villains and heroes of both sexes portrayed with honesty and an absence of agenda, other than relating a good story in plain language. There’s a point here, but it’s not belabored or heavy-handedly flogged.

Alice is a young woman found “unsuitable” by her family for polite English upper-class society seeking a more rewarding life in Kentucky where she thinks she’s found it. It turns out that what at first appeared to be a loving marriage is in fact a loveless one that threatens to become a virtual prison sentence. She is attracted to a program employing women on horseback as librarians to the rural families scattered about the Appalachian hills surrounding the town in which she lives. Such women and this program did exist and are chronicled in both photographs and written accounts of the time. These packhorse libraries carried in saddlebags in all weather and into remote and hazardous terrain supplied comfort and entertainment to people had little of either. Resistance to the program and the women who carried it out was as one might expect, that free access to information was dangerous to the morals of the community and unnecessary, since all the reading people needed was to be found in the bible. The riders suffered insult, physical harassment, institutional resistance from coal industry leaders and the ever-present perils of storm and adverse travel conditions, but they persisted.

There are romantic themes woven throughout the narrative, but they do not overwhelm the principal storyline, only enhance its impact on the reader. The relationships are genuine and handled with a delicacy that reflects admirably on the author’s light, fine touch. The tone of the book is comfortable and engaging, not melodramatic. It is a satisfying read from the point of view of entertainment, but there’s the bonus of carrying a meaningful account of real history. The strength and determination of the women is laudable, the support offered by their men is affirming, and the obstacles placed in their path are believable. It’s altogether a finely portrayed vision of a difficult time and the extraordinary response to it.

Shelf Talker: The story of the packhorse librarians of Appalachia during the Great Depression is portrayed with sensitivity and strength. With a delicate touch but a powerful narration, the story is both fascinating and entertaining. Highly recommended.