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October 13, 2019

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Uplifting heroines rise from Depression

At the outset of Jojo Moyes’ “The Giver of Stars,” Alice Van Cleve has gone from the frying pan into the fire.

An outspoken young woman who doesn’t quite fit in with polite English society, Alice jumps at the chance to leave her native England when a handsome American proposes. Imagining a different sort of life altogether, she ends up with Bennett Van Cleve and his overbearing father in a rural town in Depression-era Kentucky. She’s friendless, miserable and trapped.

Until, that is, the Pack Horse Library initiative comes to her town, offering her an escape from the lonely monotony of her days. Saddling up to bring books to remote families hungry for reading material, Alice and a cluster of local women join the initiative.

According to an article in Smithsonian magazine — which inspired Moyes to set her historical novel in eastern Kentucky — the Pack Horse Librarians were the bookmobiles of the Great Depression. Overcoming danger and discomfort, they traversed seasons, mountains and miles to bring books to homes and schools that would otherwise go without.

While her novel is set in the midst of the Great Depression, Moyes crafts a tale that’s remarkably contemporary. One timely theme that runs throughout the book is the importance of facts. The librarians represent knowledge — knowledge they wish to share to open people to new worlds and ideas and to arm them with the facts they need to counter the disinformation campaigns promoted by the wealthy and powerful.

“Knowledge is so important, don’t you think? We all say at the library, without facts we really do have nothing,” Alice says. And when her father-in-law attacks Alice for reading a “filthy book,” he informs her the book has been banned. Her response? “Yes, and I know a federal judge overturned that ban. I know just as much as you do, Mr Van Cleve. I read the facts.”

Environmental degradation is another recurring theme. And while Moyes never labels her character Margery O’Hare as an environmentalist, her love and respect for the mountains that she calls home fuels her efforts to protect it from the degradation inflicted by the coal mines. “A certain kind of man looked at God’s own land,” Margery thinks as she discovers newly desecrated forest, “And instead of beauty and wonder, all he saw was dollar signs.”

Moyes depicts the courage and resourcefulness of these women in loving detail. “The Giver of Stars” is a tribute not just to the brave women who brought the light of knowledge in dark times, but also to the rejuvenating bond of women’s friendship.


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