I know. Jojo Moyes again. Yawn! But what can you do when your 10 year old buys you this book because he has seen you reading this author and even though you already have the book on your bookshelf, you don’t want him to think that his present for Mothers’ Day has been dismissed and so you read it as soon as you can after you’ve received it?
And that is why, hot on the heels of The Horse Dancer, here I am again, reviewing Moyesy, as I like to call her (although I suspect she probably wouldn’t), yet again. Only The Ship of Brides to go now and I will have read the full complement, which I don’t currently have on my shelf and have not reserved at the library…yet. To be honest, I think I will just wait until I come across it somewhere.
Anyway, I digress. As always. To the book.
This novel, I think is a little bit of a departure for Moyes in terms of its subject matter and its setting. I know that she has set her books in earlier periods, like wartime but they have always had a distinctly European feel, even the Louisa sequel of the sequel, Still Me that was set in New York felt British in essence.
However, this book doesn’t. It is set in the Kentucky mountains in a place called Baileyville and deals with the WPA Packhorse Librarians, an initiative encouraged by Eleanor Roosevelt to bring literacy and the joy of knowledge to people from all walks of life at all levels of habitation who may not have had access to books, and the worlds which are obtained within to those who read them.
Alice and Margery are our main characters and we will deal with them each in turn. Firstly, Alice: a young British girl, an embarrassment to her family who has married, rather impulsively, a handsome American called Bennett Van Cleve. Much to her family’s relief, she heads off to America with hopes of happiness with her handsome husband. But life is not as she expected and when she is able to escape her home life by volunteering for the Packhorse Library, she has a conduit to friends and a life that brings her some level of fulfilment.
Through the library, she meets Margery O’Hare, a notorious female figure around the town who is determined not to conform to the typical image of the women’s role as wife, mother and background support by being fiercely independent and outspoken. Margery’s family lineage is less than respectable, her father being a notorious drunk and wife beater as well as argumentative with others outside his familial sphere, most notably the McCulloughs.
Margery is seen as a bad influence by the townspeople and most notably, by the town’s men folk who dislike the libertarian way she chooses to live her life – she is a threat to them and they will do anything to suppress her. Margery, for the most part, remains undaunted by this but when she makes an enemy of Geoff Van Cleve, mine owner, man of influence and father-in-law of Alice, she may have met her match as he is stubborn and proud and used to getting his own way, even if that means resorting to thuggery.
There are a range of other notable characters who fill the book: Mrs Brady, a respected citizen of Baileyville who advocates for the library; her daughter, Isabelle, who shuns company because of her self consciousness about her leg, damaged by polio but has the most beautiful voice; Beth Pinker, a girl in a house full of boys who is keen to get out and see the world outside of Kentucky and beyond; Sophia, a coloured lady whose organisational skills are next to no-one’s; Sven Gustavsson, Margery’s lover and fire captain for the mines; Fred Guisler, a horse man whose old shed has become the library’s storage home and is where the librarians gather at the end of the day to return the books but also to share stories and laugh.
Alice feels out of place but the fact that she is a good person, kind and dependable, endears her to Margery and to some of the other less judgemental residents of the small town. But there is trouble ahead in the form of a marriage breakdown and the reappearance of someone which will rock Margery’s life and by association, those of the librarians to the core.
Once again, Moyes has written a heartwarming tale whose plot develops at the right pace, the urge to keep reading ever present. She creates characters who you root for and empathise with and her endings always leave me satisfied even if you know in your heart of hearts that life rarely ends that well for so many. But fiction is all about escapism and Moyes’ books provide a healthy dose of that every time.
And whilst this book is about people and relationships and the friendships that can blossom despite the disparity in the personalities and backgrounds of the people involved, there is also the drama created by the bullies and the people who crave the power and control over others and how this can be conquered in the face of everything to the contrary.
Another good read which I can recommend.