Warning: the following article contains plot spoilers about The Giver of Stars
During the summer of 2019 I spent most of my free time pretending to be a cowboy. I was not long into a new job, with all the discombobulation that entails, and switching on my Playstation every evening to escape into Red Dead Redemption 2 was the perfect tonic.
The long-awaited videogame by Rockstar follows a gang of outlaws as they’re chased from town to town. The main character, Arthur, and his rabble of sharp shooters are men out of time. The year is 1899, and the sun is setting on the wild west. As society becomes more civilised, their masculine codes and loyalties first fray and then unravel completely.
The characters in JoJo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars are also rebels and outlaws, though of a social rather than legal kind. Their weapons of choice are not guns, but books. This is true both metaphorically, in the sense that they form a mobile library and deliver paperbacks to undernourished minds in rural Kentucky, and literally: in a bravura prologue, the de facto leader of the gang Margery defends herself against a would-be attacker by smacking him across the head with a copy of Little Women. If that sounds comic, it isn’t: Moyes tugs on the reigns of her prose in such a way to make the scene both dark and disorientating. Later, the incident returns to haunt her character in a brutal way.
The Giver of Stars is, like Red Dead 2, a twist on the traditional Western. But rather than being about the decline of a certain ideal of masculinity, it’s about the power of female solidarity and independence. Each of the librarians is escaping their own form of early 20th-century suffocation: a loveless marriage, an overbearing mother, the shame of being pregnant out of wedlock. And each finds solace, both in their friendship with one another and their shared outsider status when the town, particularly its older patriarchs, are scandalised by the library project and try to shut it down. As the premise for a good yarn, The Giver of Stars is an absolute lightning bolt of an idea, a period piece full of action with modern themes of feminism and environmentalism, that also happens to be true: the Pack Horse Library initiative existed in the 1930s as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and was ran by female volunteers.
Men do feature in The Giver of Stars. The main character, Alice, an Englishwoman attempting to start a new life in America, is caught between three of them. There’s her weak-willed husband Bennett and his angry, abusive father Van Cleeve (from whom she eventual flees) and a gentle bachelor called Fred, with whom she falls slowly in love. But the action - and there’s plenty of it - belongs to the female protagonists, who variously evade snakes, rescue horses (and people) from floods and defend one another from angry mobs.
It would be a mischaracterisation to call The Giver of Stars violent, but it certainly has its moments:
“So, it was some way into April before the body of Clem McCullough was revealed, his frostbitten nose visible first, as the snows melted high on the uppermost ridge, and then the rest of his face, gnawed in places by some hungry creature and his eyes long missing, found by a hunter from Berea, who had been sent to the hillsides about Red Lick looking for deer, and would have nightmares for months afterwards about rotting faces with fathomless holes for eyes.”
There is a touch of Steinbeck about this willingness to digress for a moment into the perspective of the most minor of characters (we don’t know who the hunter is, and never hear of him again) in order to tell the tale America most likes to hear about its self: of its own vastness and untameable nature. Towards the end, as Margery sits in jail, Moyes repeatedly describes how it is the unsanitary conditions of the room, more so than the loneliness or the hunger, that breaks her spirit. It reminded me of a vivid moment in Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments — 2019’s other big selling work of feminist fiction — when Aunt Lydia, evoking the horror of the early Gilead prison camps, talks about the day the toilets and taps stopped working. Both are depictions of squalor and desperation I’m not sure would occur to a male writer.
My favourite part of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 — the thing that made me switch it on every evening for months and drive my partner half way up the wall — was not shooting people or robbing trains but galloping for hours across exquisitely rendered landscapes; the miles and miles of winding, snow-tipped mountains and deep stretches of golden desert spiked with green cacti, eagles soaring overhead and deer on the horizon. Moyes, through the eyes of fish-out-of-water Alice, takes in the landscape of Kentucky with similar awe:
“It was not unusual for the snows to last a whole month longer on the mountaintops. It was as if, determined to ignore whatever was going on down in the town, they refused to relinquish their icy hold until the last possible moment, right until the waxy buds were already poking through the thinning crystalline carpet, and on the upper trails the trees were no longer brown and skeletal but shimmered with a faint hint of green.”
I loved these scenes, placing you as they do right on the horse beside her, smelling the fresh air, feeling the ache in your calves.
The only thing I haven’t mentioned so far is the romance. I’m not usually one for love stories, but I’ll confess to have leaked a tear around page 346 when Alice and Fred, unable to admit their feelings because she is still married, sit outside her cabin watching fireflies dance in the twilight.
‘Maybe just to know something this beautiful exists is all we can really ask for,’ he tells her.
The book is full of tender moments such as this, many of which occur between the librarians themselves as they bond and support each other when the chips are down. It’s a big read — 448 pages — but one that galloped past for me; a reminder that, no matter how sophisticated other forms of entertainment get, there’ll never be anything as immersive — or as useful, when life gets on top of you — as a brilliantly written book.
The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes is out now.