Poor Jojo Moyes! I might have enjoyed her book some degree more had I not read Kim Michele Richardson‘s Book Woman of Troublesome Creek over the summer. Both novels explore the largely-forgotten history of the Depression-Era Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky, and Moyes’ novel certainly pales in comparison to Richardson’s.
Though let’s be honest, here—Moyes is doing just fine without my fandom. She has best-selling cred and movie deals galore.* I can’t exactly imagine her crying her self to sleep amongst her millions simply because a certain Ms. MezzoSherri likes the other packhorse librarian book better than Moyes’.
And here’s another wee truth-bomb: I’m pretty sure I’d have given this book a 2-star rating, whether or not I knew about Richardson’s novel ahead of reading Moyes’s.
First things first: even though I vastly prefer Richardson’s packhorse librarian book to Moyes’s, I don’t buy into the allegations of plagiarism I’ve seen directed at Moyes here. The plot and character similarities I’ve seen listed out are so entirely trope-y that they seem practically inevitable:
- women librarians who are defying customary gender roles get threatened by a conservative-minded man spewed fire and brimstone
- the inclusion of a Black woman librarian in order to embody the racist history of 1930’s Kentucky
- the atypically cultured–though still strappingly masculine—male love interest gives our heroine a book of poetry
- in all the thousands of titles that were actually disseminated by the packhorse library program, we only hear references to those few novels and magazines—Women’s Home Companion, The Good Earth, Little Women–that remain recognizable some 90 years later
Forgive my snark, but I half-expect to see these same tropes recycled and repeated in every packhorse librarian novel that will ever be written.
Still, even though I don’t think Moyes copied Richardson’s work, I do think The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek has an authenticity that Giver of Stars really lacks.
Richardson grew up in Kentucky and still lives there, and that in-her-bones knowledge of the landscape, the people, the culture, makes for incredibly rich reading. Richardson also manages to up-level her exploration of forgotten history by interweaving a tale of not only the packhorse librarians but also the Blue Fugates of Kentucky.
Most valuable to me is the way Richardson trusts her story and her characters to be compelling without too much artificial drama. Yes, she embraces strategic anachronism—like in creating of a Black librarian character, something that never happened within the actual packhorse library program. But it’s an addition that makes so much sense in the context of the book’s examination of racial prejudice against the Blue Fugates as well as against African-Americans. The pieces in Book Woman fit together beautifully, and these realistic characters and their struggles bring enough drama and tension and impact to make for a rewarding reading experience.
The Giver of Stars, on the other hand, was just WAY too much for me. Too many narrators—Moyes starts with one POV character whose voice is sustained until that moment when Moyes suddenly needs to impart knowledge that Alice could not have seen, so another POV voice is clumsily added. (And then another one after that.) Too much plot and much too much melodrama: the actual struggles of living in Depression-area Kentucky aren’t enough, we have to add a sexually dysfunctional marriage, industrial abuse and union busting, domestic violence, polio, and a false accusation of murder followed by a corrupt trial.
It’s like Moyes watched a couple too many southern gothic movies (I definitely see hints of Deliverance and Night of the Hunter, here) and then tried to cram every Southern American stereotype she could manage into her novel.
* Including one for The Giver of Stars.
- Librarian: The Smithsonian, public domain.
- Book Woman cover: Cocktails in the Library.
- Giver of Stars cover: photo taken by the author, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.