“She wasn’t really one for big groups, but she quite liked this, the jokes and the merriment, and the way that you could see actual friendships springing up around the room, like green shoots.”
The Giver of Stars is a sweeping romantic western that tells a fictionalised account of the Kentucky Pack Horse Librarians. It is very much a book-club kind of book as it is inspired by a real group of librarians who between 1935 and 1943 delivered books to some of the most remote regions in the Appalachian Mountains. Although this project, and the women behind it, make for a very inspirational subject matter….I’m not sure that this book does them justice.
While I enjoyed those parts that focused on the library project, I found much of the story to be bogged down by unnecessary drama. Most of the book focuses on the way in which the big bad Van Cleve tries to ‘destroy’ this project and the women behind it…and it was all-too predictable. Plus, I found the romance factor to be far too twee for me.
When the narrative chronicled the librarians’ rounds, swiftly taking us alongside them through their rides across a vast and treacherous landscape, I felt very much engaged. The interactions between the librarians and those who inhabit these remote places were compelling, especially since the people they visit were mistrustful, if not downright aggressive. The librarians rise to the ‘challenge’ and try to emphasise the importance of literature without causing offence. In these sections the novel outlines the direct correlation between poverty and illiteracy, and the way in which literature can ‘unite’ people together.
Sadly, to deliver some of these deliberately positive messages, the book relies on a cast of shallow characters. We have the clearly good gals/guys (Alice and Margery are very much the heroines of the story) and the comically wicked guy, Van Cleve.
Alice would have been more suited, and convincing, in an 18th century novel (something like Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady). Her main distinguishing attribute is that she is British, so she has an ‘accent’ that is different from those around her. She possess only good qualities, and it is other people’s (the baddies) lack of understanding or ignorance that makes her seem like a ‘rebel’ of some sort (she isn’t).
Margery was the typical ‘unconventional‘ woman, who is opposed to marrying until she (view spoiler) Why in historical fiction there has to be this female character who is made to seem so ‘unlike‘ other women (often the narrative or other characters will compare her to a man) in that she is against the marriage institution and does not wish to be tied down, and then (view spoiler).
Alice and Margery happen to fall in love for two handsome men, who happen to be laid-back, kind, aware of social injustices as sexisms and racial intolerance (ahem…sure….lets remember that this book is set in Kentucky during the 1930s)….and they (view spoiler).
The three other librarians are not given their individual character arcs, rather if something happens to them it is usually when either Alice or Margery is there, so that it can be thanks to our heroines that these other women gain self-assurance or whatnot. In fact Alice and Margery seems singlehandedly able to right any wrongs, save lives, unmask Van Cleve…
Van Cleve…is all flaws. You name it, he has it. He is corrupt, sexist, racist, cruel (against his fellow humans & animals), greedy, hypocritical…the list goes on. He is the villain. That’s all you need to know.
His son, Bennett, is presented as a coward who is unwilling or unable to stand up to his father (even when Van Cleve is haranguing Alice, his wife). Unlike the two heroes Bennett doesn’t do physical work and doesn’t care about women’s rights or literature…and that’s believable-ish…I guess (after all he does come from a well to do family). What I found pretty objectionable is that his sexual inexperience is made fun of by the narrative and our so called heroines & heroes. For some reason or other Bennett has never learnt about sex, and perhaps because of this he has come to regard sex as a sinful if not ‘bad’ act. Rather than making it clear that it was his strictly conservative and religious upbringing that has lead to his sexual abnegation/impotence, the narrative implies that it is another facet of his cowardice, something to be ridiculed as it is further confirmation that he is not ‘enough‘ of a man (he doesn’t stand up to his father, he doesn’t work, he isn’t concerned by the inequities around him) and because of this he is ‘afraid’ of having sex. Ahaha (not).
If we were to reverse Alice and her husband’s role (so that it was Alice who was reticent or unwilling to have sex ) wouldn’t we criticise Bennett for pressuring his wife into having sex? Or of thinking her a coward or less of a woman because she doesn’t want to/can’t have sex? Wouldn’t we disapprove of the narrative and other characters making fun of her because of it?
The story started well enough but the cheesiness of the story, the one-dimensional characters, the unnecessary melodrama, were all not to my taste.
My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars