The Giver of Stars

Where do you get your books? Imagine your librarian delivered them personally to your door as JoJo Moyes’ Kentucky packhorse librarians do in her latest novel – The Giver of Stars.

Chronicling the real story of Appalachian women in the WPA (Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration), Moyes creates a tale about five women, who ride mules and horses to deliver books to outlying areas in the Kentucky hills. Drunk moonshiners, coal barons, and the general attitude of men in the nineteen thirties make their job much harder, but the women persevere to bring literacy to unlikely places and to provide backwoods women with important armor besides their shotguns – the ability to read books.

Although not as compelling as some of her former novels, The Giver of Stars offers all the same components – adventure, romance, and breathtaking drama. The women each have a burden to overcome but they manage to persevere through prejudice, family restrictions, physical hardship, and, of course, the men. Not all the men are villains, however. Moyes has two love interests who manage to not only respect but also aid the women when they most need help.

Van Cleve, the controlling wealthy owner of the lands he is destroying with his coal mining, is the villain. As the story progresses, it seems likely he will prevail. If you have read any of Moyes’ books, you know she can be counted on for a happy ending, so I am not offering a spoiler to tell you she comes through again in this one, but the solution is almost at the end of the book and seems contrived.

In researching the novel, I found an uncomfortable note about another author claiming to have written a very similar novel published not long before this one. Author Kim Richardson’s novel – The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek – also about the packhorse women of Kentucky, was published a few months before Moyes’ novel. Her imagined characters face many of the same issues and incidents as Moyes’ women. Although Richardson brought her concerns to the publisher, the company decided no legal action on copyright infringement was warranted, and Richardson has declined to sue on her own. 

My knowledgeable librarian who has read Richardson’s book tells me it has more of a science fiction vibe, but uses the same historical premise as Moyes. Richardson’s book is in my library system, and I have ordered it to compare notes myself. 

From volunteering at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Hawaii, I know amazing librarians who give personalized service to the blind, identifying books they might like, chatting on the phone with patrons to discover their interests in reading, and mailing large print books or books on tape to their doors.  Librarians are among my favorite people, and literacy is among the issues I hold dear, so there can’t be enough books about both topics for me.



When Fiction Follows Truth

In an eerie reminder of the cost of abusing the environment, Jim Robbins in an article for the New York Times Sunday Review – The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear  – noted that this year “for the first time in memory” the butterflies did not fly to the central Mexican forests for their annual migration on November 1st, as they have for centuries.

Where have I heard that before?  Barbara Kingsolver used that premise in her novel Flight Behavior.  Have you read it?

butterfly30Monarch butterflies and bees are disappearing.  According to Robbins’ article, roads, parking lots, manicured lawns, and pesticides are destroying natural habitats.  In Kingsolver’s fictionalized story, the butterflies lose their instinctive tracking system and show up in Appalachia.  The story ends with a natural disaster (I won’t spoil it for you, if you haven’t read it), but Robbins predicts a real disaster with the ending of his article:

“…If the bees were to truly disappear, we would lose 80 percent of the plants…That’s a huge problem for mankind.”

I’m planning a trip to Pacific Grove, California next year – one of the stops for the monarch butterfly’s migration  I wonder if they will be there.

Flight Behavior

9780062124265_p0_v1_s260x420The butterfly effect, global warming, the hills of Appalachia, and a feisty heroine converge in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior to create her best story yet.

The opening lines of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book offer a caution and a tease:

A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.  Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-colored hair who marched uphill to meet her demise.  Innocence was no part of this.  She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.”

In Fight Behavior, Kingsolver connects the yearning of a young bright Appalachian woman with missed opportunities to the crisis of global warming and the potential extinction of  a kaleidoscope of butterflies who have been misdirected by the miscues of nature.  The butterflies bring change and revelation in unexpected ways.

Dellarobia Turnbow had the potential to make something of herself, but she got pregnant in high school, married the local farm boy, and settled into an unsatisfying life, working the sheep farm with her in-laws – until one day, when she discovers a miracle that changes her life.  Monarch butterflies migrating south for the winter appeared in the green hills behind the farm, attaching themselves to the trees Dellarobia’s father-in-law had decided to cut down to manage his debts.  Kingsolver adroitly manages the confluence of the local gossips, their church, the persistent news woman, and a diligent scientist, as the presence of the monarch butterflies slowly becomes the focal point of the small rural town.

At first, the characters fall into stereotypical roles – the demanding mother-in-law, the well-meaning farmer husband, the egghead scientist – but Kingsolver forces the reader to shed all judgemental assumptions by revealing their underlying natures.  Dellarobia is as simmering and brilliant as the beautiful butterflies hanging from the trees – all ready to take flight unexpectedly.  Her children – six-year-old Preston, with his burgeoning interest in science fueled by a 1950s encyclopedia, and toddler Cordelia – at once tie her to her life while offering her a promise to make it better.  Ovid, the scientist who creates a camp behind the barn, and later establishes a lab on the farm that not only draws in Dellarobia but also allows her to exercise her intelligence and freedom.  He creates more questions than answers and through him, Kingsolver educates the reader.

The fight and flight behavior persists throughout the story as both Dellarobia and the monarchs struggle for survival.  Kingsolver neatly points to a hopeful future  before she ends with an unexpected blow that might not be a surprise if the reader is carefully attending to the consequences predicted when nature is ignored.  But I didn’t see it coming, and maybe that’s the point – none of us ever do.

A book with a message and characters who will stay with you.  As ever, Kingsolver does not disappoint.

Three Old Movies I Want to Remember

Because I tend to forget, I post what I want to remember – a handy reference to stimulate my foggy synapses.  From friends who know my penchant for beautiful scenery, period costuming, and thoughtful themes, three movies distracted me from books recently.  I would watch them again – and am noting them here so I can remember.  Have you watched any of them?

Songcatcher – When Dr. Lily McTeer is denied tenure (probably because she is a woman) at an elite East Coast university in the early 1900s, she quits.  Joining her sister at a remote mountain school, she discovers the local culture and the troubadour music that has been passed down through generations.  Determined to preserve the music, she begins to record and write the music into a songbook, but the forces of evil – a mining company – threaten.  Beautiful music, beautiful scenery, and beautiful Aidan Quinn.

Summer Hours – a.k.a. L’heurre d’ete – English subtitles do not distract from this closely woven examination of generations and inheritance. When Helene dies and leaves the house in the French countryside full of valuable art to her three children, they must decide whether to preserve the house, sell, or donate to the Musée d’Orsay.  Memories, secrets, and some sibling rivalry cloud the decision, and offer a perspective on accumulating “stuff.”  Beautiful scenery and Juliette Binoche as a blond.

Cousin Bette -BBC drama based on the novel by Honoré de Balzac.   If you are missing Downton Abbey, this mini-series of “lust, greed, and revenge in  nineteenth century Paris” will sustain you until the new Abbey appears again in January.  Very young Helen Mirren – though not Bette – steals the show.

The Cove

Ron Rash offers a tale of misery, poverty, backwoods superstition, mystery, and romance – encased in a slow-moving Southern Gothic tale set in Appalachia at the end of World War I in The Cove.  Although the story is stretched into novel length, the plot is secondary to the descriptive language and the characters’ struggles to survive.

The story opens with a Tennessee Valley Authority inspector finding a skull in an old well, just before the cove will be buried under the water of the new dam.  After this teaser, the narrative reverts to 1917 and slowly unravels around the lives of the three main characters in the gloomy cove.  Laurel and Hank Shelton barely manage to sustain a life on their farm after their parents’ death.  Although Laurel had the potential to become a teacher, she dropped out of school to nurse her ailing father; her purple birthmark labels her a witch with the local community, and her life is isolated and lonely.  Hank has returned from the war a hero who is missing a hand, and hopes to eventually start his own family – away from the cove.

Walter finishes the triangle.  When Laurel finds him comatose in the woods from bee stings, she nurses him back to health, and hopes he is the answer to her yearning.  Walter, who is mute and plays the flute, has a shady past – Rash cleverly hints at prison, wanted posters, and the Germans.  When Laurel discovers his identity, the pace of the story changes.

The war and the local community’s prejudice and fears play an important role in the story. Chauncey Feith, the cowardly wealthy army recruiter, who inspects the library stacks for subversive books and harasses the college German professor, feeds the bias of the local folk with suspicion and innuendo. Rash uses historically accurate references with the inclusion of the German luxury cruise liner, Vaterland, marooned in America when war was declared, and later converted to the American warship Leviathan.

“The ‘Vaterland’ band played jolly shoreside concerts in order to raise funds for the German relief effort, and such Anglophobes as William Randolph Hearst attended charity balls on board and donated generously.”  … excerpt from The Great Liners

Walter’s secret is the key to the mystery, and the ending is startling.  But if you like your mysteries fast-paced with clear clues, the solution may not come fast enough.  Ron Rash, a professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies, has a style that has been compared to Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. The poetic journey and the cadence of the language carries the reader into the desperate lives.  It took me a while to get into the rhythm, but once I did, I was anxious to find out if my speculation was correct.  I was still surprised at the end – and glad I had persevered.