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.



The Muralist

9781616203573_p0_v2_s192x300When I started reading B.A. Shapiro’s The Muralist, I did not expect a book about Jews fleeing Europe during World War II for asylum in the United States to be so relevant to the current political posturing about refugees.  Shapiro is best known for The Art Forger, her fictionalized solving of the famous art heist mystery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  In The Muralist, art is again the focus, with the added drama of the war, the beginnings of modern art, and a brave artist working for the WPA.

When Dani Abrams, who works at Christie’s auction house, accidentally finds small abstract paintings hidden behind works by  famous abstract expressionist artists, she sees a resemblance to the art by her aunt, Alizee Benoit.  Alizee, a young American painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), along side Pollock, Rothko and Lee Krasner, before they were famous, vanished in New York City in 1940, while trying to free her Jewish family living in German-occupied France. As Dani tries to solve the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance, the story flashes back to Alizee during the prewar politics of 1939 and the forgotten refugees refused entrance to the United States at that time.

Shapiro’s style commands attention to details with references to key players during the war.  Eleanor Roosevelt is neatly portrayed as feisty as biographers have revealed her, and references to artists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko include relevant excerpts from their early lives and careers.  Benoit’s fictionalized paintings have the power of Picasso’s Guernica.  Luckily, Shapiro includes an “Author’s Note” identifying which characters and plot lines are based on real happenings in history – some were a revelation.  I still found myself double checking her research with her villain, Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of State who ignored FDR’s Presidential plan to bring Jews from Europe to escape Hitler’s death sentence.  Alas, he did exist – another sad note in American history, and an echo of some of the politics being bandied about today.

The heroine, Alizee Benoit, did not ever exist, except in the imagination of the author, but her work with the WPA, her initiation of new frontiers in art, and the mystery of her disappearance – all fuel a fast-paced mystery while providing historical  information.  The plot twists and turns, as it alternates from present-day to prewar America, leading to a satisfying ending, and finally revealing what happened to Alizee.

Shapiro delivers another gripping story in The Muralist.

Review:  The Art Forger