Book Review: The Giver of Stars
The wonderful thing about books is that they are conversation starters - even with strangers. An interaction in a bookshop, with a stranger, was the catalyst for me buying, reading and loving The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes.
The Bookstore manager and I started chatting - (as one does) - about her latest books on display, one of which was The Beekeeper of Aleppo. I proceeded to regale her with the merits of the novel. She responded by picking up The Giver of Stars and asked if I had read it. I had not and was not inclined to consider purchasing it. My justification was that I had tried Me Before You by Jojo Moyes and I was not a fan. (I didn't even get halfway). Perhaps it was because I had seen the movie first, which I really enjoyed. But I had relegated Ms Moyes to my throwaway pile of authors.
As I was to find out, that was a bit premature. (The moral of this story is to never judge an author by just one book). 😉
Back to the conversation at hand. The bookstore manager persevered with her persuasive prowess and convinced me that The Giver of Stars was a unique read and different to Jojo Moyes’ other novels. As I am a people pleaser by nature - and perhaps because she mentioned it was historical fiction - I bought the book and promised to read it. I am so glad I did.
The novel is based on the real-life Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky, who delivered books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt's travelling library program from 1935 - 1943. The premise of the story speaks to social issues in a small narrow-minded chauvinistic and racist mining community during the Depression era and how the status quo is threatened by four women who take on the travelling library on horseback into the remote Eastern Kentucky mountains to deliver books and learning to the most isolated residents. And yet, despite their commitment and efforts to improve the literacy and knowledge among the mountain’s inhabitants, they are faced with resistance, adversity and sabotage.
Who would have thought a multilayered plot could emerge from four women on horseback delivering books? You will be pleasantly surprised.
“I was arrogant. I thought I could live as I wanted, long as I didn't hurt nobody. But I've had time to think in here - and I worked it out. You don't get to do that in Lee County, maybe not in the whole of Kentucky. Not if you're a woman. You play by their rules or they ... well, they squash you like a bug.”
Jojo Moyes builds her characters very cleverly as well as employing exceptional use of dialogue and gently dealing with themes of abuse, social injustice, friendship, belonging, purpose, courage, perseverance and trust.
The very first time they ride through the mountains together, Alice (newby from England and married to handsome Bennet von Cleve, Baileyville’s coal mining magnate) asks Margery, “If you’ve never been further east than — where was it, 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?” she demands. The answer, of course, is because of books. Books that brought stories of Africa to Appalachia and books that continue to bring us all a slice of the world.
The thread of friendship - despite vastly different backgrounds and personalities - is beautifully portrayed as these women face adversity and grow together, discovering unexpected bravery and freedom in unexpected places.
The novel made me angry, it made me laugh out loud and It made me cry. It is a story to be savoured and l did not want to leave the memorable characters behind after the last page. What Jojo Moyes does so well in The Giver of Stars is give us 2 strong protagonists and neither would be as rounded or believable without the other. (Not sure there is a literary device called "symbiotic protagonists," but that is what I am calling it.)
Historical fiction, when done right, draws you into a time that you may not know much about and not only educates you, but transports you to that world, enlightening you and reminding you that change, questioning the status quo and fighting against injustice are, more often than not, achieved by ordinary people being pushed out of their comfort zones and being willing to sacrifice for the good of their neighbour. Bravery is merely a natural byproduct of serving one’s community despite societal contexts, traditional thinking and prejudicial expectations.
“We women face many unexpected challenges when we choose to step outside what are considered habitual boundaries.”
The Giver of Stars is a compelling and engaging read. Do yourself a favour and add it to your TBR (to be read) list.