Author: Jojo Moyes
Publication: Viking, hardcover, 2019
Genre: Historical fiction
Setting: Depression-era KentuckyDescription: Alice Wright never fit in at her proper English home because she has a mind of her own and refuses to be silent, so everyone is relieved when handsome American visitor Bennett Van Cleave sweeps her off her feet and takes her away to Kentucky. Despite her best efforts, Alice doesn’t adapt to small-town Baileyville and her husband and his father become critical and make her life miserable. However, in 1935, Congress approved the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the work relief bill that funded the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Among other things, the WPA and Eleanor Roosevelt funded lending libraries in rural areas and Alice impulsively offers to become one of several traveling librarians, enduring criticism and hardship partly because she needs to escape from her oppressive new home and also because once she gets over her trepidation she loves the work and her new friends, all of whom understand Alice better and value her more than her husband does.
My Impression: Moyes is best known in the US as the author of the somewhat mawkish (but readable) Me Before You but I remember reading about her first book, Foreign Fruit long ago, and ordering a copy from the UK. It was a classic secrets from the past novel set in an English seaside town. All her books are very different from each other: The Ship of Brides starts off very slowly, following a group of Australian women who married British soldiers during WWII and are nervously sailing to join their husbands; then there is an emotional flashback. I was listening to the audio as I drove to Cape Cod one summer and it brought me to tears near the end.
Moyes’ decision to write about rural Kentucky seemed a little odd for an English author but she says in the Acknowledgments that she “fell in love with a place and its people, and then the story as it came,” which is interesting, and it probably helped build her American audience. However, while Alice and her colleagues’ eager distribution of books is based on the actual Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky program that ran from 1935 to 1943, to me the real message of the book is that even intelligent, hard-working women like Alice, and her friends Margery and Isabelle, are completely vulnerable and powerless when vindictive men decide to crush them. I found this very depressing, although there were several decent men in Baileyville. I enjoyed the book but questioned the resolution because I was not convinced that Baileyville was big enough for Alice, Margery and the Van Cleaves.Source: Copy provided by the publisher for review purposes. This is book nine in my 20 Books of Summer. This is also my seventeenth book in the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.
I know this was a popular book; my mother's book group chose it two years ago although they usually read more serious fiction - did you read it?