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“I’ve been a huge Jojo Moyes fan. Her characters are so compelling. . . . It’s such a great narrative about personal strength and really captures how books bring communities together.” —Reese Witherspoon
From the author of Me Before You, set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond
Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve, hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.
The leader, and soon Alice's greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who's never asked a man's permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.
What happens to them--and to the men they love--becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity, and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.
Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic--a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.
SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE!
Release date: October 8, 2019
Publisher: Penguin Books
Print pages: 416
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The Giver of Stars
Three months earlier
It was, everyone agreed, fanning themselves outside the store or passing in the shade of the eucalyptus trees, unseasonably warm for September. The meeting hall at Baileyville was thick with the smells of lye soap and stale perfume, bodies wedged together in good poplin dresses and summer suits. The heat had permeated even the clapboard walls so that the wood creaked and sighed in protest. Pressed tight behind Bennett as he shuffled his way along the row of packed seats, apologizing as each person rose from their chair with a barely suppressed sigh, Alice swore that she felt the warmth of each body leach into her own as it leaned backward to let them pass.
So sorry. So sorry.
Bennett finally reached two empty seats and Alice, her cheeks glowing with embarrassment, sat down, ignoring the sideways glances of the people around them. Bennett looked down at his lapel, brushing at non-existent lint, then spotted her skirt. "You didn't change?" he murmured.
"You said we were late."
"I didn't mean for you to come out with your house clothes on."
She had been trying to make cottage pie, to encourage Annie to put something other than Southern food on the table. But the potatoes had gone green, she hadn't been able to gauge the heat of the range, and the grease had spattered all over her when she dropped the meat onto the griddle. And when Bennett came in looking for her (she had, of course, lost track of time) he could not for the life of him see why she wouldn't just leave culinary matters to the housekeeper when an important meeting was about to take place.
Alice placed her hand over the largest grease mark on her skirt and resolved to keep it there for the next hour. Because it would be an hour. Or two. Or-Lord help her-three.
Church and meetings. Meetings and church. Sometimes Alice Van Cleve felt as if she had merely swapped one tedious daily pastime for another. That very morning in church Pastor McIntosh had spent almost two hours declaiming the sinners who were apparently plotting ungodly dominance around the little town, and was now fanning himself and looking disturbingly ready to speak again.
"Put your shoes back on," Bennett murmured. "Someone might see you."
"It's this heat," she said. "They're English feet. They're not used to these temperatures." She felt, rather than saw, her husband's weary disapproval. But she was too hot and tired to care, and the speaker's voice had a narcoleptic quality so that she caught only every third word or so-germinating . . . pods . . . chaff . . . paper bags-and found it hard to care much about the rest.
Married life, she had been told, would be an adventure. Travel to a new land! She had married an American, after all. New food! A new culture! New experiences! She had pictured herself in New York, neat in a two-piece suit in bustling restaurants and on crowded sidewalks. She would write home, boasting of her new experiences. Oh, Alice Wright? Wasn't she the one who married the gorgeous American? Yes, I had a postcard from her-she was at the Metropolitan Opera, or Carnegie Hall . . .
Nobody had warned that it would involve so much small-talk over good china with elderly aunts, so much pointless mending and quilting or, even worse, so many deathly dull sermons. Endless, decades-long sermons and meetings. Oh, but these men did love the sound of their own voices! She felt as if she were being scolded for hours, four times a week.
The Van Cleves had stopped at no fewer than thirteen churches on their way back here, and the only sermon that Alice enjoyed had taken place in Charleston, where the preacher had gone on so long his congregation had lost patience and decided, as one, to "sing him down"-to drown him out with song until he got the message and rather crossly closed his religious shop for the day. His vain attempts to speak over them, as their voices rose and swelled determinedly, had made her giggle.
The congregations of Baileyville, Kentucky, she had observed, seemed disappointingly rapt.
"Just put them back on, Alice. Please."
She caught the eye of Mrs. Schmidt, in whose parlor she had taken tea two weeks previously, and looked to the front again, trying not to appear too friendly in case she invited her a second time.
"Well, thank you, Hank, for that advice on seed storage. I'm sure you've given us a lot to think about."
As Alice slid her feet into her shoes, the pastor added, "Oh, no, don't get up, ladies and gentlemen. Mrs. Brady has asked for a moment of your time."
Alice, now wise to this phrase, slid off her shoes again. A short middle-aged woman moved to the front-the kind her father would have described as "well upholstered," with the firm padding and solid curves one associated with a quality sofa.
"It's about the mobile library," she said, wafting her neck with a white fan and adjusting her hat. "There have been developments that I would like to bring to your attention.
"We are all aware of the-uh-devastating effects the Depression has had on this great country. So much attention has been focused on survival that many other elements of our lives have had to take a backseat. Some of you may be aware of President and Mrs. Roosevelt's formidable efforts to restore attention to literacy and learning. Well, earlier this week I was privileged to attend a tea with Mrs. Lena Nofcier, chairman of the Library Service for the Kentucky PTA, and she told us that, as part of it, the Works Progress Administration has instituted a system of mobile libraries in several states-and even a couple here in Kentucky. Some of you may have heard about the library they set up over in Harlan County. Yes? Well, it has proven immensely successful. Under the auspices of Mrs. Roosevelt herself and the WPA-"
"She's an Episcopalian."
"Roosevelt. She's an Episcopalian."
Mrs. Brady's cheek twitched. "Well, we won't hold that against her. She's our First Lady and she is minding to do great things for our country."
"She should be minding to know her place, not stirring things up everywhere." A jowly man in a pale linen suit shook his head and gazed around him, seeking agreement.
Across the way, Peggy Foreman leaned forward to adjust her skirt at precisely the moment Alice noticed her, which made it seem that Alice had been staring at her. Peggy scowled and lifted her tiny nose into the air, then muttered something to the girl beside her, who leaned forward to give Alice the same unfriendly look. Alice sat back in her seat, trying to quell the color rising in her cheeks.
Alice, you're not going to settle in unless you make some friends, Bennett kept telling her, as if she could sway Peggy Foreman and her crew of sour faces.
"Your sweetheart is casting spells in my direction again," Alice murmured.
"She's not my sweetheart."
"Well, she thought she was."
"I told you. We were just kids. I met you, and . . . well, that's all history."
"I wish you'd tell her that."
He leaned toward her. "Alice, the way you keep hanging back, people are starting to think you're kind of-stand-offish . . ."
"I'm English, Bennett. We're not built to be . . . hospitable."
"I just think the more you get involved, the better it is for both of us. Pop thinks so, too."
"Oh. He does, does he?"
"Don't be like that."
Mrs. Brady shot them a look. "As I was saying, due to the success of such endeavors in neighboring states, the WPA has released funds to enable us to create our own traveling library here in Lee County."
Alice stifled a yawn.
On the credenza at home there was a photograph of Bennett in his baseball uniform. He had just hit a home run, and his face held a look of peculiar intensity and joy, as if at that moment he were experiencing something transcendent. She wished he would look at her like that again.
But when she allowed herself to think about it, Alice Van Cleve realized her marriage had been the culmination of a series of random events, starting with a broken china dog when she and Jenny Fitzwalter had played a game of indoor badminton (it had been raining-what else were they supposed to do?), escalating with the loss of her place at secretarial school due to persistent lateness, and finally her apparently unseemly outburst at her father's boss during Christmas drinks. ("But he put his hand on my bottom while I was handing around the vol-au-vents!" Alice protested. "Don't be vulgar, Alice," her mother said, shuddering.) These three events-with an incident involving her brother Gideon's friends, too much rum punch, and a ruined carpet (she hadn't realized the punch contained alcohol! Nobody said!)-had caused her parents to suggest what they called a "period of reflection," which had amounted to "keeping Alice indoors." She had heard them talking in the kitchen: "She's always been that way. She's like your aunt Harriet," Father had said dismissively, and Mother had not spoken to him for two whole days, as if the idea of Alice being the product of her genetic line had been so unbearably offensive.
And so, over the long winter, as Gideon went to endless balls and cocktail parties, disappeared for long weekends at friends' houses, or partied in London, she gradually fell off her friends' invitation lists, and sat at home, working half-heartedly at scrappy embroidery, her only outings accompanying her mother on visits to elderly relatives or to Women's Institute gatherings, where the subjects for discussion tended to be cake, flower-arranging and Lives of the Saints-it was as if they were literally trying to bore her to death. She stopped asking Gideon for details after a while as they made her feel worse. Instead she sulked her way through canasta, cheated grumpily at Monopoly, and sat at the kitchen table with her face resting on her forearms as she listened to the wireless, which promised a world far beyond the stifling concerns of her own.
So two months later, when Bennett Van Cleve turned up unexpectedly one Sunday afternoon at the minister's spring festival-with his American accent, his square jaw and blond hair, carrying with him the scents of a world a million miles from Surrey-frankly he could have been the Hunchback of Notre Dame and she would have agreed that moving into a clanging bell-tower was a very fine idea indeed, thank you.
Men tended to stare at Alice, and Bennett was immediately smitten by the elegant young Englishwoman with huge eyes and waved, bobbed blonde hair, whose clear, clipped voice was like nothing he'd ever heard back in Lexington, and who, his father remarked, might as well be a British princess for her exquisite manners and refined way of lifting a teacup. When Alice's mother revealed that they could claim a duchess in the family through marriage two generations back, the older Van Cleve almost expired with joy. "A duchess? A royal duchess? Oh, Bennett, wouldn't that have tickled your dear mother?"
Father and son were visiting Europe with an outreach mission of the Combined Ministry of East Kentucky Under God, observing how the faithful worshipped outside America. Mr. Van Cleve had funded several of the attendees, in honor of his late wife, Dolores, as he was prone to announcing during lulls in conversation. He might be a businessman, but it meant nothing, nothing, if it was not done under the auspices of the Lord. Alice thought he seemed a little dismayed by the small and rather un-fervent expressions of religious fervor at St. Mary's on the Common-and the congregation had certainly been taken aback by Pastor McIntosh's ebullient roaring about fire and brimstone (poor Mrs. Arbuthnot had had to be escorted through a side door for air). But what the British lacked in piety, Mr. Van Cleve observed, they more than made up for with their churches, their cathedrals and all their history. And wasn't that a spiritual experience in itself?
Alice and Bennett, meanwhile, were busy with their own, slightly less holy experience. They parted with clutched hands and ardent expressions of affection, the kind heightened by the prospect of imminent separation. They exchanged letters during his stops at Rheims, Barcelona and Madrid. Their exchanges reached a particularly feverish pitch when he reached Rome, and on the way back it was a surprise only to the most disengaged members of the household that Bennett proposed, and Alice, with the alacrity of a bird seeing its cage door swing open, hesitated a whole half-second before she said yes, she would, to her now lovelorn-and rather deliciously tanned-American. Who wouldn't say yes to a handsome, square-jawed man, who looked at her as if she were made of spun silk? Everyone else had spent the past months looking at her as if she were contaminated.
"Why, you are just perfect," Bennett would tell her, holding his thumb and forefinger around her narrow wrist as they sat on the swing seat in her parents' garden, collars up against the breeze and their fathers watched indulgently from the library window, both, for their own reasons, privately relieved about the match. "You're so delicate and refined. Like a Thoroughbred." He pronounced it "refahnd."
"And you're ridiculously handsome. Like a movie star."
"Mother would have loved you." He ran a finger down her cheek. "You're like a china doll."
Six months on, Alice was pretty sure he didn't think of her as a china doll any more.
They had married swiftly, explaining the haste as Mr. Van Cleve's need to return to his business. Alice felt as if her whole world had flipped; she was as happy and giddy as she had been despondent through the long winter. Her mother packed her trunk with the same faintly indecent delight with which she had told everyone in her circle about Alice's lovely American husband and his rich industrialist father. It might have been nice if she'd looked a tiny bit mournful at the thought of her only daughter moving to a part of America nobody she knew had ever visited. But, then, Alice had probably been equally eager to go. Only her brother was openly sad, and she was pretty sure he would recover with his next weekend away. "I'll come and see you, of course," Gideon said. They both knew he wouldn't.
Bennett and Alice's honeymoon consisted of a five-day voyage back to the United States, then onward by road from New York to Kentucky. (She had looked Kentucky up in the encyclopedia and been quite taken with all the horse-racing. It sounded like a year-long Derby Day.) She squealed with excitement at everything: their huge car, the size of the enormous ocean liner, the diamond pendant Bennett bought her as a gift from a store in London's Burlington Arcade. She didn't mind Mr. Van Cleve accompanying them the entire journey. It would, after all, have been rude to leave the older man alone, and she was too overcome with excitement at the idea of leaving Surrey, with its silent Sunday drawing rooms and permanent atmosphere of disapproval, to mind.
If Alice felt a vague dissatisfaction with the way Mr. Van Cleve stuck to them like a limpet, she smothered it, doing her best to be the delightful version of herself that the two men seemed to expect. On the liner between Southampton and New York she and Bennett did at least get to stroll the decks together in the hours after supper while his father was working on his business papers or talking to the elders at the captain’s table. Bennett’s strong arm would pull her close, and she would hold up her left hand with its shiny new gold band, and wonder at the fact that she, Alice, was a married woman. And once they were back in Kentucky, she told herself, she would be properly married, as they would no longer have to all share a cabin, curtained off as it was.
“It’s not quite the trousseau I had in mind,” she whispered, in her undershirt and pajama bottoms. She didn’t feel comfortable in less, after Mr. Van Cleve senior had, in his half-asleep state one night, confused the curtain of their double bunk with that of the bathroom door.
Bennett kissed her forehead. “It wouldn’t feel right with Father so close by, anyway,” he whispered back. He placed the long bolster between them (“else I might not be able to control myself”) and they lay side by side, hands held chastely in the dark, breathing audibly as the huge ship vibrated underneath them.
When she looked back, the long trip was suffused with her suppressed longing, with furtive kisses behind lifeboats, her imagination racing as the sea rose and fell beneath them. You’re so pretty. It will all be different when we get home, he would murmur into her ear, and she would gaze at his beautiful sculpted face and bury her face in his sweet-smelling neck, wondering how much longer she could bear it.
And then, after the endless car journey, and the stopovers with this minister and that pastor the whole way from New York to Kentucky, Bennett’s announcement that they would not be living in Lexington, as she had assumed, but a small town some way further south. They drove past the city and kept going until the roads narrowed and grew dusty, and the buildings sat sparsely in random groupings, overshadowed by vast tree-covered mountains. It was fine, she assured him, hiding her disappointment at the sight of Baileyville’s main street, with its handful of brick buildings and narrow roads that stretched to nowhere. She was quite fond of the countryside. And they could take trips to town, like her mother did to Simpsons in The Strand, couldn’t they? She struggled to be equally sanguine at the discovery that, for the first year at least, they would be living with Mr. Van Cleve (“I can’t leave Father alone while he’s grieving Mother. Not just yet, anyway. Don’t look so dismayed, sweetheart. It’s the second largest house in town. And we’ll have our own room.”). And then once they were finally in that room, of course, things had gone awry in a way she wasn’t sure she even had the words to explain.
With the same gritting of teeth with which she had endured boarding school and Pony Club, Alice attempted to adjust to life in the small Kentucky town. It was quite the cultural shift. She could detect, if she tried hard, a certain rugged beauty in the landscape with its huge skies, its empty roads and shifting light, its mountains among whose thousands of trees wandered actual wild bears, and whose treetops were skimmed by eagles. She was awed at the size of everything, the vast distances that felt ever-present, as if she had had to adjust her whole perspective. But, in truth, she wrote, in her weekly letters to Gideon, everything else was pretty much impossible.
She found life in the big white house stifling, despite being relieved of most household duties by Annie, the near-silent housekeeper; the house was indeed one of the largest in town but was stuffed with heavy antique furniture, every surface covered with the late Mrs. Van Cleve’s photographs or ornaments or a variety of unblinking porcelain dolls that each man would remark was “Mother’s favorite,” should Alice attempt to move them an inch. Mrs. Van Cleve’s exacting, pious influence hung over the house like a shroud.
Mother wouldn’t have liked the bolsters positioned like that, would she, Bennett? Oh no, Mother had very strong opinions on soft furnishings.
Mother did love her embroidered psalms. Why, didn’t Pastor McIntosh say he didn’t know a woman in the whole of Kentucky whose blanket stitch was finer?
She found Mr. Van Cleve’s constant presence overbearing; he decided what they did, what they ate, the very routines of their day. He couldn’t stand to be away from whatever was going on, even if it was just she and Bennett playing the gramophone in their room and would burst in unannounced. “Is it music we’re having now, huh? Oh, you should put on some Bill Monroe. You can’t beat ole Bill. Go on, boy, take off that racket and put some ole Bill on.”
If he’d had a glass or two of bourbon, those pronouncements would come thick and fast and Annie would find reasons to lurk in the kitchen before he could rile himself and look for reasons to find fault with dinner. He was just grieving, Bennett would murmur. You couldn’t blame a man for not wanting to be alone in his head.
Bennett, she discovered swiftly, never disagreed with his father. On the few occasions she had spoken up and said, calmly, that no, actually, she’d never been a great fan of pork chops—or that she personally found jazz music rather thrilling—the two men would drop their forks and stare at her with the same shocked disapproval as if she had removed all her clothes and danced a jig on the dining table. Why’d you have to be so contrary, Alice? Bennett would whisper as his father left to shout orders at Annie. She realized swiftly it was safer not to express an opinion at all.
Outside the house was little better; among the townspeople of Baileyville she was observed at a distance and with the same assessing eye they turned on anything “foreign.” Most people in the town were farmers; they seemed to spend their whole lives within a radius of a few miles and knew everything about one another. There were foreigners, apparently, up at Hoffman Mining, which housed some five hundred mining families from all over the globe, overseen by Mr. Van Cleve. But as most of the miners lived in the company-provided homes there, used the company-owned store, school, and doctor, and were too poor to own either vehicles or horses, few ever crossed over into Baileyville.
Every morning Mr. Van Cleve and Bennett would head off in Mr. Van Cleve’s motorcar to the mine and return shortly after six. In between, Alice would find herself whiling away the hours in a house that wasn’t hers. She tried to make friends with Annie, but the woman had, through a combination of silence and overly brisk housekeeping, let her know that she didn’t intend to make conversation. Alice had offered to cook, but Annie had informed her that Mr. Van Cleve was particular about his diet and only liked Southern food, guessing correctly that Alice knew nothing about it.
Most households grew their own fruits and vegetables, and there were few that didn’t have a pig or two or a flock of hens. There was one general store, huge sacks of flour and sugar lining the doorway, and its shelves thick with cans. And there was just the one restaurant: The Nice’N’Quick with its green door, firm instruction that patrons must wear shoes, and that served things she’d never heard of, like fried green tomatoes and collard greens and things that they called biscuits that were actually a cross between a dumpling and a scone. She once attempted to make them herself, but they emerged from the temperamental range not soft and spongy like Annie’s but solid enough to clatter when dropped onto a plate (she swore Annie had jinxed them).
She had been invited to tea several times by local ladies and tried to make conversation but found she had little to say, being hopeless at quilting, which seemed to be the local preoccupation, and knowing nothing about the names they bandied around in gossip. Every tea after the first seemed obliged to begin with the story of how Alice had offered “biscuits” with her tea instead of “cookies” (the other women had found this hysterical).
In the end it was easier to just sit on the bed in her and Bennett’s room and read again the few magazines she had packed from England or write Gideon yet another letter in which she tried not to reveal how unhappy she was.
She had, she realized gradually, simply traded one domestic prison for another. Some days she simply couldn’t face another night watching Bennett’s father reading Scripture from the squeaking rocking chair on the porch (God’s word should be all the mental stimulation we require, wasn’t that what Mother said?), while she sat breathing in the oil-soaked rags they burned to keep the mosquitoes away and mending the worn patches in his clothes (God hates waste—why, those pants were only four years old, Alice. Plenty of life left in them.). Alice grumbled inwardly that if God had to sit in the near dark stitching up someone else’s trousers he would probably have bought himself a nice new pair from Arthur J. Harmon’s Gentleman’s Store in Lexington, but she simply smiled a tight smile and squinted harder at the stitches. Bennett, meanwhile, frequently wore the expression of someone who has been duped into something and couldn’t quite work out what and how it had happened.
“So, what the Sam Hill is a traveling library, anyway?” Alice was startled out of her reverie with a sharp nudge from Bennett’s elbow.
“They got one in Mississippi, using boats,” called out a voice near the back of the church.
“You won’t get no boats up and down our creeks. Too shallow.”
“I believe the plan is to use horses,” said Mrs. Brady.
“They’re gonna take horses up and down the river? Crazy talk.”
The first delivery of books had come from Chicago, Mrs. Brady continued, and more were en route. There would be a wide selection of fiction, from Mark Twain to Shakespeare, and practical books containing recipes, domestic tips, and help with child-rearing. There would even be comic books—a revelation that made some of the children squeal with excitement. Alice checked her wristwatch, wondering when she would get her shaved ice. The one good thing about these meetings was that they weren’t stuck in the house all evening. She was already dreading what the winters would be like, when it was going to be harder for them to find reasons to escape.
“What man has time to go riding? We need to be working, not paying social calls with the latest edition of Women’s Weekly, or whatever it’s called.” There was a low ripple of laughter.
“Tom Faraday likes to look at the ladies’ undergarments in the Sears catalog, though. I heard he spends hours at a time in the outhouse reading that!”
“It’s not men, it’s women,” came a voice.
There was a brief silence.
Alice turned to look. A woman was leaning against the back doors in a dark blue cotton coat, her sleeves rolled up. She wore leather breeches, and her boots were unpolished. She might have been in her late thirties or early forties, her face handsome and her long dark hair tied back in a cursory knot.
“It’s women doing the riding. Delivering the books.”
“By themselves?” came a man’s voice.
“Last time I looked, God gave ’em two arms and two legs, just like the men.”
A brief murmur rippled through the audience. Alice peered more closely, intrigued.
“Thank you, Margery. Over at Harlan County they’ve got six women and a whole system up and running. And as I say, we’ll be getting something similar going here. We have two librarians already, and Mr. Guisler has very kindly lent us a couple of his horses. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank him for his generosity.”
Mrs. Brady motioned the younger woman forward.
“Many of you will also know Miss O’Hare—”
“Oh, we know the O’Hares all right—”
“Then you will know she has been working these last weeks to help set things up. We also have Beth Pinker—stand up, Beth—” a freckled girl with a snub nose and dark blond hair stood awkwardly and sat straight back down again—“who is working with Miss O’Hare. The reason—one of the many reasons I called this meeting—is that we need more ladies who understand the rudiments of literature and its organization so that we can move forward with this most worthy of civic projects.”
Mr. Guisler, the horse dealer, lifted a hand. He stood up and removed his hat. After hesitating a moment, he spoke with a quiet certainty. “Well I think it’s a fine idea. My own mother was a great reader of books, and I’ve offered up my old milk barn for the library. I believe all right-minded people here should be supporting it. Thank you.”
He sat down again.
Margery O’Hare leaned her backside against the desk at the front and gazed steadily out at the sea of faces. Alice noted that there was a ripple of vague discontent moving around the room, and it seemed to be directed at her. She also noted that Margery O’Hare seemed supremely untroubled by it.
“We have a large county to cover,” Mrs. Brady added. “We can’t do it with just two girls.”
A woman at the front of the church called out: “So, what would it mean? This horseback librarian thing?”
“Well, it would involve riding to some of our more remote dwellings, and providing reading materials to those who might not otherwis
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