In 1935, in depression gripped America, the Pack Horse library programme was set up to deliver books to remote communities in the Appalachian Mountains.
The American library association estimated that a third of Americans no longer had access to public libraries. In Eastern Kentucky an estimated 31% of the population were illiterate. This is how the Pack Horse Library programme came to be. It was set up by Eleanor Roosevelt and was run by women who delivered books to families in remote areas. In the 8-years it ran for, 30 of these libraries served 100,000 people. This is the background to JoJo Moyes’ historical novel The Giver of Stars and it is wonderful.
“That some things are a gift, even if you don’t get to keep them.” JoJo Moyes
Alice Wright has married Bennett Van Cleve, seeing it as a ticket to a life of excitement away from her stuffy English family, her parents hope it’ll tame her wild ways.
Expecting a life filled with big cities, Alice instead finds herself in Baileyville a small town in Kentucky, living with her overbearing bully of a father-in-law and a husband who isn’t interested in her. She soon comes to realise she’s swapped one cage for another.
Bored and restless, she signs up to join the Pack Horse Library with Margery O’Hare, the daughter of a violent moonshiner, a woman who chooses to live by her own rules rather than follow tradition.
Margery wants to share the wonder of books with families that otherwise wouldn’t have access to them.
Joined by Izzy, Beth, Sophia and later, Kathleen, the women get to work on their mission to share knowledge and find freedom for themselves.
I loved this book, it reminded me of the magic of reading, the knowledge and entertainment it gives. How reading can help us escape and immerse ourselves in another world and how the thirst for knowledge can give people the tools they need to build a different life.
It reminded me of how we can take something as simple as reading and learning for granted. The families the women visit are living in abject poverty in harsh conditions:
“The families they visited were often blue with cold themselves, children and old people tucked up together in beds, some coughing or rheumy-eyed, huddled around half-hearted fires and all still desperate for the diversion and hope that a good story could bring”.JoJo Moyes
It’s the visits and stories that help to keep them going, the comfort they get from a book. It’s something I’ve felt – you can draw whole worlds in your head through reading a book in a way television and films will never allow – it’s probably why so many people hate adaptations.
It’s also a tale of friendship, community and loyalty as the women – and the men they love – build close bonds. Standing by each other, refusing to bow down to convention and living lives that mean something to them. I loved how they were unafraid to share their dreams and fears with each other. Beth wanted to travel the world and visit India. Izzy – left with a limp after Polio – admits at one point she’d never been in a school before without being bullied, she also just wanted to be a singer. Margery, most of the time just wanted to be let be.
For Alice, it’s all about breaking free. She finds that freedom in the mountains, riding alone, meeting people from vastly different backgrounds to her own and learning she can have a different life, no matter how impossible that seems at times:
“There is always a way out of a situation. Might be ugly. Might leave you feeling like the earth had gone and shifted under your feet. But there is always a way around.” JoJo Moyes
I loved Margery, a character who was free and didn’t care what people thought of her. Moyes writes with warmth, drawing beautiful images of the mountains and town, I could picture every horse ride and every trip to the mountains.
The story does feel a little slow in places, it does take time to build but I enjoyed every moment of it and getting to know each character. And it taught me something; I hadn’t heard of the pack horse libraries before, I didn’t know that women on horse-back set out to share books, what a beautiful idea, a little-known piece of history that deserves celebrating!
P.S I also laughed at the Tess of the D’Ubervilles reference…..I could never get on board with Angel either.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm