The Giver of Stars
Set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond, from the author of Me Before You and The Peacock Emporium
Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.
The leader, and soon Alice's greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who's never asked a man's permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Horseback Librarians of Kentucky.
What happens to them--and to the men they love--becomes a classic drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. Though they face all kinds of dangers, they’re committed to their job--bringing books to people who have never had any, sharing the gift of learning that will change their lives.
Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope. At times funny, at others heartbreaking, this is a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.
SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE!
I "heart" this book so much. There were so many great things happening about this book that I loved. I was sad when I finished the book. All of the women, Margery, Alice, Kathleen, Beth, Sophia, Izzy, and two men Sven and Fred were lovely.
My favorite is Margery. She had this bold attitude and really was the type of leader that the other women needed. She helped the other women to bring out their personalities and stand up for themselves; especially Alice.
The Giver of Stars is a real literary treat for readers! Ms. Moyes infuses such life into everything from the women to the story itself. I look forward to reading the next book from this author.
Q&A with Jojo Moyes, author of THE GIVER OF STARS
(Pamela Dorman Books / Viking; On-sale: October 8, 2019; $28.00; 9780399562488)
THE GIVER OF STARS is based on the true story of the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky. How did you discover this piece of history?
I was reading an edition of the Smithsonian Magazine online and came across an extraordinary series of pictures of women on horseback. They were on rough, mountainous terrain, clutching parcels of books, gazing out proudly. I read the accompanying text, about the real-life horseback librarians of Kentucky, and knew immediately that I wanted to write a book about them.
Fans who follow you on social media might have tracked your trip to Kentucky to research THE GIVER OF STARS. What was your research process like?
Oh I love research. I don’t believe you can write effectively about a place without immersing yourself in it. I need the sights and smells and stories. I visited Kentucky three times between 2017 and 2019 and stayed in a tiny cabin on the side of a mountain, rode horses along the trails the women would have ridden, and talked to a lot of people, to try and get not just the facts, but the rhythms of the language.
Libraries play a key role in THE GIVER OF STARS, and keen readers will notice you often include a library in your novels. Why are libraries so meaningful to you?
I was built in a library. My parents didn’t have much money when I was growing up so the weekly visit to the local library was a key part of my education, and my love of reading. Libraries are one of the few resources where people can be sheltered, educated and entertained without having to pay, and it pains me that they are under such threat. Without knowledge, people have fewer opportunities to move upwards.
The protagonist in THE GIVER OF STARS, Alice, is a British woman who moves to Kentucky after marrying an American man. Why did you choose to include a British character in this very American novel?
Well, it felt pretty audacious to be writing about Appalachia, even with research. I felt that if much of it was seen through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with that world, it made everything a little more accessible. Given it was such a closed world, I also liked the tensions inherent in introducing someone “foreign” into it.
Literacy and censorship are huge issues in THE GIVER OF STARS, something that affects the women of the novel very differently from the men. Why did you choose to focus on these issues, and do you feel they are still relevant today?
I think they’ve never been more relevant. We live in an age where the very notions of truth and facts are under attack—without knowledge we are prey to anyone who can work up a smart speech. Without knowledge women have little control over their own bodies. There are numerous ways in this book in which the acquisition of knowledge changes lives—protecting their homes, educating their families, liberating themselves from marriages.
Many of your books deal with class struggles, and THE GIVER OF STARS features families from vastly different backgrounds. Why is this an important subject matter to you, and how did you approach writing about class set during the Great Depression?
I did a lot of reading, and as with the modern day, the poor seemed to be disproportionately affected. To read about the mining communities of Depression era America is to see class inequalities laid bare in the most explicit way. Many miners were little better than indentured slaves, while the mine bosses made fortunes off the backs of their labour. Disputes like Harlan were what happened when people attempted to push back. Also, I wanted this book to be full-blooded, in terms of the violence of the age, as well as the love stories. You can’t write about Kentucky of that period without bringing the class struggles into it.
The librarians in THE GIVER OF STARS are incredibly positive about sex for women living in early twentieth-century Kentucky—the librarians quietly distribute a book focused on female pleasure, and one of the women stoutly refuses marriage, despite carrying on a relationship with a man for several years.
Was it essential for you to emphasize women’s agency in a time when it was so limited? Were any of the characters based on real women you encountered in your research?
One of the reasons I wanted to write this book in the first place was that I wanted to write about a woman of a certain age (i.e. not 21) having great sex with a mutually respectful partner. It happens! And yet so often in fiction we don’t see it. A woman’s lot in Kentucky at that time was a pretty rotten one much of the time—it was a very patriarchal society, and domestic violence was rife—but I also discovered that the women of the state are tough, proud, funny and resilient. I wanted Margery to reflect that, even while the inequality showed through elsewhere.
THE GIVER OF STARS is your first novel following the Me Before You trilogy. How did it feel to step away from characters you’ve been writing for so long?
It was tough leaving Louisa behind, but I fell so hard in love writing this book that from the moment I arrived in Kentucky I pretty much forgot her. I have never enjoyed writing a book like I enjoyed writing this one: I wrote when I was meant to be on holiday, at weekends, whenever I could spare half an hour to sit down. I didn’t want to leave it, or these women. That rarely happens. So in that respect it was the loveliest way to leave Me Before You behind.
The librarians develop very close relationships with their horses, spending long, solitary days with them while delivering books. Do you feel a special kinship with horses? Why are the horses so important to the story?
I have loved horses since I was five years old. For me they were a route to strength, independence, and have given me some of the loveliest relationships of my life. I felt that this shone out of those pictures of the women—and of the reports I read. These were partnerships, and the horses and the women understood each other.
What draws you to historical fiction?
I think it’s always story, whether it’s modern or historical. Some fact or snippet just lodges in my brain and I can’t shift it. If it stays for months then it’s usually insisting on being written about. It’s no coincidence that this contains horses, love stories and library books—three of my favourite things…
What does the title THE GIVER OF STARS mean?
The Giver of Stars is the title of a poem that forms a pivotal moment of the story. It’s a beautiful, tender, romantic poem that spells nothing out but leaves you a little breathless and it was written by a woman who couldn’t express what she really felt—a little like Alice and Frederick.
What are the main themes of the book? What do you want people to take away from reading THE GIVER OF STARS?
I wanted to write a book about women who had agency, and did worthwhile things, rather than simply existing in a romantic or domestic plotline. These women achieved epic things, and, more importantly, supported each other while doing it. I reject the constantly pushed narrative that says women must always be in competition with each other; in my experience other women have been my greatest friends and supports and I wanted to show that. Mostly I want to entertain and transport the reader a little, to make them laugh and cry. I really hope readers enjoy reading THE GIVER OF STARS as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.
Jojo Moyes / THE GIVER OF STARS
Fifteen months ago, I read an article in the Smithsonian magazine about the Horseback Librarians of Kentucky—a group of young women employed by the US Government’s WPA scheme to go into the mountains after the Great Depression and take books and magazines to families who might not otherwise read a word.
Enduring harsh conditions and braving all kinds of dangers—snakes, treacherous mountains, moonshiners and criminals—they would saddle up and ride hundreds of miles a week to read to the sick, teach children, encourage the spread of facts in a time where religion and snake oil salesmen were able to battle for people’s minds. They often faced fierce resistance, both for their sex and from families who were suspicious of any reading materials other than The Bible, but worked together in a system that lasted seven years across several states, bringing everything from recipes to comic books, classics and biological texts to these remote families. Many of them became beloved to the people they served.
The photographic images of these young women were extraordinary, and their relevance to today hit me hard. I traveled to this remote area of East Kentucky on three separate research trips, rode the trails that the librarians would have ridden and stayed in a remote log cabin so that I could experience nature as they would have done (and was roundly told off for moving a snake with a stick). I fell in love with the landscape and the storytelling people who inhabit it.
The Giver of Stars is the result—a story of five such women from very different backgrounds, brought together in a tiny community in the mountains of Kentucky. The story is fictional, but I have rested it on a skeleton of facts. I can honestly say I have never loved writing a book more, or been more inspired by my subject matter. I really hope everyone enjoys reading it as much as I have loved creating it.
PS. I was built in a library. My parents didn’t have much money when I was growing up so the weekly visit to the local library was a key part of my education, and my love of reading. Libraries are one of the few resources where people can be sheltered, educated and entertained without having to pay, and it pains me that they are under such threat. Without knowledge, people have fewer opportunities to move upwards. I hope The Giver of Stars shows just how they can change lives—even, or especially, today.