Postal Reading group
July 2021
Notes on the book The Giver of stars by Jojo Moyes

At the risk of plagiarism, and of perpetuating the meme, the “Librarians on horseback” theme seems as good a place as any to start this review. As I am a librarian, and did learn to ride a horse as a child I briefly wondered if this might be a suitable job. However, much to the relief of my parents, my ‘horsey’ phase was short lived, and I’m not sure that I’d be best suited to a mobile library anyway.

Jojo Moyes’ novel The giver of stars centres on a mobile library service using horses in the town of Baileyville in Kentucky. Alice marries the handsome American Bennett Van Cleve in the hope of escaping her own stifling life in England. However, she finds that, if anything, life in a small town in the Southern states is even more repressive. She finds escape, and unexpected love, working for the newly formed mounted library service. However, when the town turns against the new library, Alice fears that she will lose this new found opportunity for freedom.

Along with Fried green tomatoes, this is the second book in this group this year to be set in the Southern states of America during the time of the great depression. Given my poor track record with such books, I could be forgiven for thinking, “how unfortunate!” However, both were in their way quite good, and in the case of the present book, the theme of the mobile library was sufficient to hold my interest and attention.

In many respects there are sufficient themes that this book is not strictly about the Southern States at all, although, of course, the plot would not have worked as well elsewhere. In part this story centres on women’s friendships and the way they are treated by society, a theme which has been taken up by other reviewers. The restrictive attitudes towards women in this story could be found almost anywhere at that time, certainly in any sufficiently conservative community. Although things are changing, I’ll warrant that the zeitgeist still moves more slowly in Baileyville, Kentucky, than elsewhere.

For me the really interesting theme of the book is that of libraries and the importance of books. I have long thought that, done properly, librarianship should be something of a subversive activity. The similarity of the word library with liber, meaning free, suggests freeing ‘information’ from the might of the big technology companies and from publishers who wield copyrights to protect their profits, not the livelihood of authors. Of course, while the packhorse librarians didn’t have to face the monopoly of academic publishers, Geoffrey Van Cleve was still a formidable opponent!

Rather, this novel really speaks of the importance of public library services, and their power to change lives; in this case, not just the lives of the readers, but those of the staff too. While the original aim of libraries may have been an educational one, an intention which fitted well with the Christian ethos of ‘self improvement’, it is important not to neglect the recreational role of libraries. For the sick, the elderly, and their housebound carers, literature provided entertainment and a means of escape. Before television it was all they had; well, books and Tex Lafayette, anyway!

To be fair to Baileyville, apart from a few regressive elements more concerned with the town’s “moral rectitude”, the library was well received initially. Even some of the critics were won over surprisingly easily. The community spirit may have made for an oppressive town, especially if you were a woman, but they did rally round to help the victims of the flood. The same community spirit is less in evidence today as libraries, stationary and mobile alike, are closed with remarkably little opposition. On one hand there is a widespread, but incorrect belief, that libraries have been superseded by television and the internet, and on the other hand a suspicion of anything which promotes independence of thought. In that respect, modern society would gladden the heart of Geoffrey Van Cleve!

Another theme which seemed strangely modern was the scant regard for the environment and employees rights and safety. In the book it was the Van Cleve coal mine, now its more likely to be oil and gas (think tar sands and fracking for gas). Although many industries pay inadequate attention to the environment, the fossil fuel industry has been a persistent offender, and that’s even before we burn their products. Likewise, at a time when our government is attempting to reduce the power of the unions, it is tempting to ask how much has really changed?

In conclusion this is an enjoyable and well-written novel which offers an insightful treatment of two themes: women’s friendships and libraries. While I found the idea of the packhorse library a captivating one, the underlying message of the power of libraries is the more important one, and one which remains crucial in the face of modern day cuts to library services. Likewise, the continued environmental abuses of the fossil fuel industry make this novel strangely modern in more ways than one.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler