'The Give of Stars' review: Jojo Moyes takes on a historical fiction

Marriage is not the escape that Alice Van Cleve was hoping for. She threw off a suffocating life in England to follow her handsome husband back to Kentucky — romance and independence is what she wants. But once settled in the big house in a small town, Alice quickly finds herself adrift, lonely and literally unloved. In eastern Kentucky in 1937, there aren’t many options for women, even the daughter-in-law of the all-powerful mine owner. She is expected to keep house and make babies, neither of which she can do. She is, she feels, “so lost, as if she had made a mistake that there was simply no coming back from.”

Relief comes in the unlikely form of the Great Depression and the WPA Packing Horse Librarians program. Alice enlists and joins a team of strong-minded women who deliver books and magazines to Appalachian people even more isolated than she is. Before long, there’s more than books involved. The library sisterhood moves to empower area women and thwart the grasping powers-that-be. When they start getting that uppity, trouble inevitably ensues.

Jojo Moyes’ historical fiction — yes, there really were Packing Horse Librarians — follows her best-selling “Me Before You” trilogy. Here she delivers a romantic, sometimes melodramatic, tale of hard work and heroism. While the evil father-in-law remains cartoonish, the librarians and their allies form a cast of believable characters that readers can cheer on. The novel makes only glancing references to real-life events such as the mine confrontations in nearby Harlan County. Instead, Moyes stays true to her narrative and takes full advantage of the sense of place she gained from repeated trips to the area. Her vivid description of rescue efforts in a flash flood is absolutely riveting. “The Giver of Stars” is a stirring novel sure to please Moyes’ many fans.

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