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Books and Beyond

I just completed reading a fiction book, The Giver of Stars, c 2019, written by the New York Times Best-Selling Author Jojo Moyes. A brief biography on the book cover says she lives in England with her husband and three children. I wondered how a British person could write a 387-page book that takes place in Kentucky, USA. In her Acknowledgments, she does refer to being in Kentucky, riding there on a horse, and meeting people. However, she was born in England. The main topic she was learning about: the Packhorse libraries in Eastern Kentucky.

There are so many reasons to choose a book to read. I’m interested in Kentucky because my paternal Renner ancestors live in Rockcastle County, just twenty miles from Lee County, Kentucky, where Alice Van Cleve, the main character in The Giver of Stars, lives with the husband she recently married. She met him and his father when they were on a religious mission in England. The years of the book are 1937 – 1943. Historically, the Works Progress Association (WPA) released funds for this library program, which was supported by President and Mrs. Roosevelt.

Alice lives in the house in Baileyville, south of Lexington, KY, where her husband Bennett Van Cleve and his father live. They both work at Hoffman coal mine, as administrators, not miners. Do matters about black lives come up in the book? Yes. Alice and her friend Margery (the main person responsible for getting these library deliveries going) eventually hire Sophia, a black woman (the word colored is used in the book) to be in charge of the library, which was started in an old barn donated by Fred Guisler. Sophia had been a librarian in Lexington, and she came to Baileyville to be with her brother. Related to the mining, we find out that black men do work in the mine. Alice’s husband and father-in-law use the name mulatto to describe them.

As the four or five women deliver library books for Packhorse Library, the plot of the book weaves among mining topics, racial issues, family stories, and Kentucky history.

As Alice becomes used to riding the horse Spirit through the woods and over the mountains in Kentucky, she can pay more attention to the families where she delivers books on her own. One family she gets to know well is Jim Horner and his two girls, and she reads books to them. The wife and mother has died. This is a good picture of how reading books can bring a family to life again.

Alice has tried to get along with her husband Bennett Van Cleve and his father, but as time goes by and this relationship gets worse, she moves into the house where Margery O’Hare lives. Alice gets to know Fred Guisler well, and in the last few pages of the book they get married. Her marriage to Bennett has been annulled, because all aspects of a marriage never took place.

Margery O’Hare, who is in her thirties now, has lived here all her life. The townspeople remember that the O’Hare family and the McCullough family have been through harsh and violent times with each other. So toward the end of the book when Margery is accused of murdering Clem McCullough, she spends months in jail as her trial is being planned. One day during the trial, the women who deliver books get together outside the courthouse and sing the hymn “Abide with Me.”

The trial is finally ended and Margery is freed because of evidence given by daughters of Clem McCullough of what really happened when he died. He fell and hit his head on a stone when he was walking in the snow to take the book Little Women back to the library. Margery’s close friend is Sven Gustafsson. In the last few pages of the book they get married. Their baby girl is named Virginia Alice.

The book title The Giver of Stars is also the title of a poem written by American poet Amy Lowell. It is in a book of poems Fred gives to Alice, and of course it is a way of describing the deepness of their relationship. Here is how the poem begins:

Hold your soul open for my welcoming.

Let the quiet of your spirit bathe me

With its clear and rippled coolness,

For me the best aspect to The Giver of Stars is the delivery of books for seven years by women to people who live in rural Kentucky. On the site for the Smithsonian, you can read more history of the Packhorse deliveries (www.smithsonian.com/history).

The first copy I was reading of The Giver of Stars came to our front porch one day with the delivery of the five novels I had requested to borrow from Marshall-Lyon County Library. Mary drives up our lane and picks up the books I am returning and leaves books I have requested. This reality, for me, is connected to the plot and characters in Jojo Moyes’ book. I like the book so much I decided to buy it.

Another connection happened on Saturday morning February 6th. I was sitting on the couch (again) reading, at this point the beginning of Chapter 3 in The Giver of Stars. It begins with a quote from the book Little Women, by Louisa Mae Alcott. It was 10 AM and I was listening to the MPR Saturday cinema music program. The first piece was music from the film “Little Women.”

Here is the quote from the beginning of Chapter 3:

…and best of all, the wilderness of books, in which

she could wander, where she liked, made the library a

region of bliss to her.

— Louisa Mae Alcott

Your Marshall Lyon County Library is open M-F 10 am – 5:30 pm. The Drive-up window is open M-F 4 – 5:30 and Sat. 9 – noon. Call 507-537-7003 if you want library delivery service anywhere in Lyon County.

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