Book Review: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and The Giver of Stars

Until recently I had never heard of the Pack Horse Library, a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), that used women to be book mobiles on horse/mule-back in the Appalachian region of Kentucky from 1935 to 1943.  The timing of the library wait list gave me the audio versions of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek first and The Giver of Stars on the day I finished Troublesome Creek.

I thought that it was an unusual to have two books about the Pack Horse Library come out around the same time. As I started to do some further research on the program and books I discovered that Kim Michele Richardson, the Troublesome author, also thought it was unusual and found eight instances where there were similarities between books. As there has been no copyright or legal action, I will leave this to coincidence. Having listened to both back-to-back I do not see the overlaps as “stealing” as it is very likely they both used the same source material for research. I am not wading any further into this debate as each woman wrote very different story on the same topic and geographical area. It is possible that both authors found inspiration in a diary or other first person account by a former librarian and/or area resident that would explain some of the similarities. Amazon has two other books book on the same topic. There is a wealth of information in archives on the program including a large collection at the University of Kentucky.

Before I begin the compare and contrast reviews, I would like to note that I am a native Kentuckian who trial rides on horseback. I have also hiked extensively through the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee. Though I am from a hilly part of the state, I am not Appalachian. My love of this country and experiences on trial made it easy for me to envision the riders on the rocky paths.

As I like to read blind and find most synopsis full of spoilers, I do not write synopsis. If my review influences your reading, I want you to have the pleasure of experiencing the story as it unfolds.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: Kim Michele Richardson spent years researching the area around Troublesome Creek, Kentucky and the WPA Library and it shows. She uses her storytelling to showcase her exhaustive research not only about the library but about the Blue Fugates, natural remedies, mountain beliefs, sayings and social customs, and coal mining. I enjoyed Troublesome Creek. Richardson created a story to showcase the research she did. She is a native Kentuckian and her love of the history, land and people shows. Her lead character, Cussy Mary Carter, could have been a real pack horse librarian. I enjoyed the audio version. I did find the story a bit on the simple side, but I did not stop listening. Between working and living in a pandemic, I found comfort in the words and setting.

The Giver of Stars: I was hooked from the beginning until the end. Jojo Moyes knows her audience and she writes for them. I’m sure she has sat through enough wine clubs, I mean book clubs, to know what works for a group discussion. She creates her characters in a way that everyone in the book club can identify with one of them. She adds drama and a touch of romance. But most importantly, she writes engaging, plausible and interesting stories that keep her on the best seller list. What she writes may be “chick lit”, but she does a good job of creating a story that never insults the intelligence of her audience.

Comparing and Contrasting libraries: If you are interested in this topic, I encourage you read or listen to both books. I would recommend spending time with Troublesome Creek first. I learned interesting lore from Troublesome Creek and appreciated the research. Stars grabbed me from the beginning. I listened to it in the car and in the kitchen while making dinner. While Troublesome Creek (TR) focuses on one woman, Stars has two strong lead characters and a supporting cast. Stars focuses on the support and sisterhood the female librarians found with each other in this challenging and punishing job. Each book approaches the coal industry differently with TR focusing on the viewpoint of a miner and his family and Stars giving a much broader view of the industry and its treatment of the region. The endings are very different.

This has unintentionally been my year of Appalachia reading. If you are interested in more, I highly recommend any and everything by Silas House. He is from the area near Berea. His love of the area and people show in his well-crafted Southern Literature.

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