A well crafted story of rural Kentucky built around a little known government program in the 1930s that used small traveling libraries to promote literacy. But that hardly does this novel justice. Because it’s about so much more. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.
Alice Van Cleve is a young, English woman who marries the son of a wealthy American coal mine tycoon, to escape her too-proper life and critical parents. Alice and Bennett settle into her father-in-law’s home in rural Kentucky. Although her home life turns our disappointing, Alice soon volunteers for the fledgling library program where she meets a small group of disparate women who slowly become a tight circle of friends. One is Margery O’Hare – a gutsy mid-thirties single woman who speaks her mind, flaunts the conventions of society, and is even more interesting a character than Alice. There’s also a young woman whose polio disability and overprotective mother have closed down her life. A tomboy eager for time away from an all-male household. And a quiet, dignified black woman who knows much more about libraries than all the others put together.
But the story is less about the library program itself than about the lives of women in rural America in the 1930s. The deeply ingrained expectations that shape their lives, the limitations imposed by a conservative society, and the consequences — both good and bad — when women begin to behave more independently.
The story is also set against the growing labor movement in America. The Van Cleve mines — with their sub-standard housing, over-priced company store, and unsafe mining conditions — are relentless in their efforts to resist unionization. And like many men with money and power, Mr. Van Cleve Sr. expects (demands!) to get his way in all areas of his life. Especially dangerous in someone who so fiercely holds a grudge.
It’s a suspenseful read, with unexpected twists and turns. And yet, there is also a central love story that is tender and lovely. A well-executed historical novel that will show you a slice of historical America you’ve probably never seen.
More about the author, Jojo Moyes.
You may be interested in my reviews of other historical novels by Jojo Moyes: