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The Giver of Stars


The Giver of Stars

British author Jojo Moyes’ latest novel, THE GIVER OF STARS, is one of those rare examples where fiction communicates very human truths that historical facts alone can’t express. But to get the idea, a historical prelude is helpful.

In the spring of 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced through one of his iconic radio “Fireside Chats” that as part of his promised New Deal for Americans, the federal government was set to launch the Works Progress Administration.

That name was soon changed to the more direct Work Projects Administration, and for its brief eight years of existence (curtailed only by the rising economic engine of WWII), the WPA achieved the near-impossible by creating jobs for nearly nine million unemployed Americans. With an annual budget averaging $1.3 million (in 1930s values), the program literally changed the face of the country through an unprecedented number of cultural, infrastructural and educational projects whose physical presence remain to this day.

Not as visible as bridges, roads, stadiums, schools or civic buildings, but every bit as life-changing for American society, were programs that brought learning opportunities to those least able to withstand the economic devastation that gave birth to the WPA in the first place.

This is the context in which Moyes’ powerful novel enters the picture.

"Moyes’ thorough research...shines through in myriad details of social, political, cultural and economic life as it was lived during the Great Depression among the poorest of America’s poor."

While numerous unemployed manual laborers (many illiterate themselves) were recruited to build schools and libraries in cities and towns across the nation, the rural poor in isolated areas such as Appalachia had even fewer opportunities to connect intellectually with a fast-changing world that was already leaving its younger generation behind.

But someone at the WPA hatched the bold idea of sending books into these remote hill-country communities on horses ridden by trained librarians, most of whom were women from a wide range of social, economic and cultural backgrounds.

What came to be known as the Packhorse Library Program was energetically championed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who, like Moyes’ five strong female characters, tackled the challenges of life by refusing to buckle at criticism or take no for an answer.

The fact that a bestselling author living in Essex, England, was moved and fascinated by a recent Smithsonian Magazine article with photos of rural packhorse librarians working in Kentucky is itself a tribute to the powerful legacy of this once nearly-forgotten WPA initiative.

Moyes, who credits a childhood spent adventuring in local libraries with her formation as a writer, calls THE GIVER OF STARS a story built on a “skeleton” of historical fact. But after having done a little online background exploration, I beg to differ. Her skeleton has a lot more flesh on its bones than many a historical novel I’ve read, and she achieves this largely through the depth and diversity of her composite characters.

THE GIVER OF STARS revolves around the adventures and connections among Alice, the domestically abused British bride; Beth, the resilient middle child of impoverished dirt-farmers; Izzy, disabled by polio but free and mobile on horseback; Margery, defiantly single and feminist ahead of her time; and Sophia, with superior education and professional library training, but forever devalued for the color of her skin.

Centered in eastern Kentucky, a local chapter of the WPA library program manages to recruit tentative (at first) but willing women, not only ride to long, lonely and dangerous mountain trails, but to risk being injured, shot at, drowned in flash floods, lost at night, assaulted or threatened.

But little by little, the horseback librarians win the trust of people who never had much reason to trust anyone --- least of all some “uppity” women offering free loans of books, even books to teach one how to read books!

Moyes’ thorough research, which included several personal trips to Kentucky and even riding on some of the original librarians’ trails, shines through in myriad details of social, political, cultural and economic life as it was lived during the Great Depression among the poorest of America’s poor. An especially engaging facet of THE GIVER OF STARS are the excerpts from reports, journals, news clippings and WPA guidebooks that preface many of the chapters --- not just a ring of truth but documented realities.

There’s a phrase going around today that is used far too much and is found emblazoned on numerous red baseball caps. But it’s very much out of context and time. Make no mistake, it was really Roosevelt’s WPA that “made America great again.”

Moyes’ heartfelt tale about brave and under-appreciated horseback librarians who reached hundreds of thousands in less than a decade has captured this slice of history with consummate eloquence.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on November 8, 2019

The Giver of Stars
by Jojo Moyes