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Sunday, November 17, 2019


Inspired by a true story, the unforgettable journey of five extraordinary women living in perilous times. (Review by Fiona de Goede)

As an ardent Jojo Moyes fan, I was looking forward to reading her latest offering and I’m pleased to report that The Giver of Stars did not disappoint.

The story is set in Kentucky in the unremarkable southern Appalachian town of Baileyville, in 1937. Alice van Cleve, an English girl who does not fit in or conform to English society norms, meets the attractive American, Bennett van Cleve, and rashly decides to marry him to escape her stifling English life. However, she soon discovers that her life in America is not the dream she envisioned and that Bennett is no match for his overbearing father, the owner of a coal mine.

As Alice starts to despair and feels increasingly out of her depth, a meeting at the town hall to discuss the possibility of a traveling library service finds her volunteering to become involved with this project.  This is when she meets Margery O’Hare, a formidable woman who is not afraid to speak her mind and flaunt the confines of convention.

The two women, with several regular volunteers, attempt the almost impossible task of bringing books to the poor and isolated families in the area. They ride across treacherous terrain in severe weather conditions and very soon the task becomes extremely rewarding as hitherto suspicious folk start to look forward to the books and the librarians’ visits.

When the body of a notorious drunkard and troublemaker is found in the mountains, the town is divided as to who the possible murderer may be. It is a testament of the girls’ friendship that they stand together and fight the accusations directed at one of their own.

I found the topic of this book extremely fascinating – especially as it is based on a true story.  The characters are believable and I enjoyed the description of the routes the girls followed through the mountains. I have very seldom read a book where two characters are given equal status: normally there is a main protagonist and various supporting characters with less of a story line. I found that although Alice was the main character, Margery’s story was given almost as much attention. This is not a criticism, rather just an observation and something that I rather liked – both Alice and Margery are strong, independent women, each with a unique point of view.

Something else I would like to comment on: at the beginning of his courtship of Alice, Bennett van Cleve showered the English girl with attention and compliments. As much as I understood how Mr van Cleve stifled the newlyweds’ efforts to be alone and to have a normal married life, I was rather astounded that after a year of having tied the knot, they had not yet consummated the marriage! It was a bit odd, after pursuing her quite openly and ardently, that Bennett van Cleve then lost all interest in Alice. And even when Alice decides very boldly, to take the initiative and approach Bennett, he not only shuns her, he is disgusted by her. It did mean that Alice had a reason to have the marriage annulled, especially as a new love interest in the form of Fred Guisler arrived on the scene. This is a bit of a spoiler, apologies!

Another thing that I found quite remarkable was that Alice was able to spend an entire day on horseback, in the blazing sun, sweaty and grimy and then, with just a damp washcloth, be able to restore herself “so that her skin was once again soft and sweet-smelling”! This is indeed a feat I think many of us would love to be able to master.

All in all I loved The Giver of Stars, and the fact that it is so completely different from her other novels, is once again testament to the fact that Jojo Moyes is a very talented and gifted storyteller.

A postscript which I found interesting: The WPA’s Horseback Librarian programme ran from 1935 to 1943. At its height it brought books to more than a hundred thousand rural inhabitants. No programme like it has ever been set up since.

Eastern Kentucky remains one of the poorest – and most beautiful – places in the United States.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes is published by PenguinRandomHouse. ISBN: 9780718183233. Recommended Retail Price R270.00 - Fiona de Goede