The Giver of Stars a Departure for Jojo Moyes


The Giver of Stars (2019)

By Jojo Moyes

Penguin Random House, 400 pages.




Most American readers know Joyo Moyes from her 2012 bestseller Me Before You and its follow-ups After You (2015) and Still Me (2018). Each way featured Louisa Clark, once the caregiver to a rich quadriplegic. It thus come as a surprise that her latest, The Giver of Stars, is set in Kentucky–in the 1930s. The title is borrowed from an Amy Lowell poem.


Its central character, Alice Wright, is English, but she meets a handsome Yank, Bennet Van Cleve, when he and his father visit England. In a whirlwind romance, she agrees to marry him and move to America, a place that sounded like an exotic escape from her hectoring parents. She had something like New York City in mind, but would settle for Lexington once she gets a good look at Baileyville, a coal town in Appalachia where Bennett’s father is something of a law unto himself. He is also a widower and Alice hadn’t planned on him living under the same roof as she and Bennett, or being treated like an intruder.


There’s nothing much she likes about Kentucky, a place inhabited by self-righteous prigs that could have plucked from Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. Alice’s every move is judged and found wanting by everyone from the local pastor, Van Cleve’s housekeeper Annie, and Bennett himself. To make matters worse, her marriage has yet to be consummated; Bennett is a wimpy (and limp) lackey for his old man. To use an old Appalachian expression, Alice’s fate is what happens when you buy a pig in a poke.


Alice’s fate brightens when she meets Margery O’Hare, a free spirit who locals also judge, though Margery couldn’t care less. Margery is helping set up a Works Progress Administration program endorsed by Eleanor Roosevelt that seeks to put books and magazines into the hands of rural readers. In this neck of the woods that means saddling up a horse and riding up the ridges and into the hollows. It also means visiting some places where potential clients are more likely to have a rifle in their hands than a welcoming cup of coffee.


Margery and her WPA coordinator forge ahead, stock a library, and launch a four-woman delivery crew: Margery, Alice, and two gals barely out of high school: the salty-tongued Beth Pinker and Izzy Brady, who suffers from low esteem because polio left her with a brace, a short leg, and a limp. A Giver of Stars is essentially about feisty women who seek the support of likeminded individuals in a tradition-bound one-company town. Two men play heroic roles: Sven Gustavsson, Margery’s lover, and the ever-helpful Fred Guisler, whose wife left him years before. It’s not easy being unconventional in a hidebound place where elites maintain power by sowing distrust and fear.


A Giver of Stars eventually branches off to be a murder mystery, a look at eco-destruction, worker exploitation, family feuds, sexual ignorance, union-busting, cowardice, resilience, dark secrets, romance, and rural poverty. At times the novel is so focused on female power that it slides down anachronistic hills. I really liked the character of Sophia Kenworth, an African American woman with a disabled brother who takes charge of organizing the book collection. Alas, it’s not a believable character. Although Sophia’s role is kept quiet, I doubt that such a secret would hold for long or that it would have been very safe for Sophia to be in said role in Jim Crow Kentucky. (The Ku Klux Klan was active in the state.) Moyes’ logic is especially thin given that everyone connected with the library attracted attention to themselves and Baileyville is presented as gossip-ridden. Some may also take umbrage to the novel’s shift from female independence to the suggestion that most of life’s problems can be overcome by the love of a good man.  


This is the historian in me speaking, though, and many readers will probably overlook the unlikelihood of what they read. Like all Moyes novels, A Giver of Stars is an easy read that presents tough subjects in palatable and hopeful ways. In case you’re wondering, the Pack Horse Library Project was a real thing that lasted from 1935-43–back in the days in which the federal government actually made an effort to connect with ordinary people. It eventually served more than 100,000 Kentuckians. So, file this one under historical fiction/non-fiction.


Rob Weir



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