Updated: Aug 28
Packhorse librarian books: Kim Michele Richardson vs. Jojo Moyes
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
If you’re a reader of contemporary fiction, you probably know about the controversy in book world right now.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek’s narrator is Cussy Mary, a young woman ostracized for her blueish skin. She is of the real “Blue People of Kentucky.” Cussy Mary signs up to be a packhorse librarian, a person who carries books, magazines, and scrapbooks into the hills for isolated families living in poverty. She faces violence, hardship, and hunger, but she also finds friendship and camaraderie in the reading of books.
The packhorse librarian program, initiated by Eleanor Roosevelt, ran from 1935 through the mid-1940s. The WPA program was not well-known outside of the region, at least not until Richardson’s book was released — to much acclaim — in May of 2019.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek won the following awards when it was released:
Oprah’s Buzziest Books for MayBuzz Books 2019
Spring/Summer Great Reads Best New Titles
Indie Next Pick
May Library Reads
May Pick SIBA Spring 2019 Okra Pick
A Forbes Best Historical Novel 2019
BAM! Best Fiction 2019 Pick
BAM! EXPERT PICK
A PopSugar Favorite Book of Summer 2019
BAM! August 2019 Book Club Pick
A Women’s National Book Association Great Group Reads
Longlisted for the 2019 OWL (Outstanding Works of Literature) Award
Richardson’s reviews were great.
NYT bestselling author, Joshilyn Jackson said of “Book Woman,”
“AN AUTHENTIC SOUTHERN VOICE STRAIGHT OUT OF KENTUCKY, WELL GRAVELED, ROUGH WITH MOONSHINE, AND DAMN NEAR IRRESISTIBLE.”
Deep South Magazine gushed:
“Set in the hollers of Depression-era Kentucky, the novel serves as a testament to the power of the written word, arguing that words can traverse barriers between class, race and individual differences. Richardson’s descriptions throughout the novel breathe life into the mountains, the books and the lives of her characters. She captures both the beauty of the mountains and the ugliness of ignorance. It serves as a wonderful reminder that our similarities can overcome our differences — and a love of reading is one of those similarities. In a time of constant polarization, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek reminds us that all is not lost.”
Richardson’s Kentucky roots are obvious throughout the book, in the richness of dialect, the names of people and places….(Troublesome Creek is a real place, and so is Hell-for-Sartin), and as a native Kentuckian, she would have heard about the packhorse librarian project and the Blue People.
The timeline might be important
After preliminary research, Richardson sent the idea to her agent in 2016. She then spent a year in the hills of Appalachia writing. The final manuscript was sent to her agent in July of 2017 and went up for auction shortly after. Sourcebooks purchased the rights in October of 2017, and Publisher’s Marketplace publicized a brief plot description in November 2017. Galleys were available on several publishing sites by November of 2018. The book was released six months later.
The Giver of Stars
Jojo Moyes’ novel also focuses on a packhorse librarian. The main character is Alice Van Cleve, a transplanted English woman with an unhappy marriage and violent father-in-law. Like Cussy Marie in “Book Woman,” she faces violence, prejudice, and hardships but finds friendship with the other librarians.
The Giver of Stars was released in October of 2019. Universal Studios has already picked up the movie rights.
In The Washington Post, Karin Tanabe says this:
“The Giver of Stars” is a celebration of love, but also of reading, of knowledge, of female friendship, of the beauty of our most rural corners and our enduring American grit: the kind of true grit that can be found in the hills of Kentucky and on the pages of this inspiring book.”
I couldn’t find too many reviews for “Giver of Stars.” It certainly hasn’t been acclaimed as The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek has been. I suspect that the controversy is causing some to distance themselves.
Original thought, coincidence, and plagiarism?
What happens when two authors write books on the same topic?
No crime there.
I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as original thought. How vain do we have to be to believe that after thousands of years and millions and millions of brains, we might think something that’s never been thought of before?
We may be the first one to put an idea into written words. We may have a unique twist on a well-worn story. We may write about the same concept using totally different vocabularies, examples, and viewpoints. But is what we write totally original? Probably not.
Thousands of books on World War II exist. That doesn’t mean they are plagiarized. It just means that lots of people look at an event through lots of different lenses.
But what happens when two authors write two books about a relatively obscure topic and the second book, released later, has definite similarities to the first? Is that coincidence or something more sinister?
The timeline, again…
Jojo Moyes’ says that the idea for her book came from an article in Smithsonian magazine in June of 2017. She then spent three weeks, on three separate occasions during 2017 and 2018, staying at The Snug Hollow Inn — researching. She wrote The Giver of Stars in a frenzied nine-month period.
In September of 2017 — at the same time that Richardson’s manuscript was being shopped around for a publisher — Moyes posted to Facebook saying that she had an idea for a history-oriented book but had seen that other people were beginning to notice the topic. Should she go ahead and write it?
Moyes sent a rough draft of “The Giver of Stars” to her editor in October of 2018, a year after Richardson’s completed book had been sold to Sourcebooks.
Decide for yourself
You’ll have to make up your own mind about the controversy.
Read both books. Research the issue. (Links are included throughout this article.) Decide if this is a case of coincidence or just a variation on a theme. Was it accidental that Moyes’ book had some major similarities to Richardson’s work?
Let me know what you think.
Melissa Gouty loves books and book talk. The pairing of two similar works is one of her favorite topics. While she may not be thinking original thoughts, (since that’s probably impossible,) she’s always trying to put a unique spin on the thoughts she does have.