Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Thoughts on the similarities between the two Kentucky Pack Horse librarian historical novels

Regarding the Buzzfeed News article making the rounds in the historical fiction world, citing eight commonalities between two new releases: I read Jojo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars as an ARC over the summer. (My review, written for November's Historical Novels Review, is forthcoming.) I haven’t read Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek yet, though had bought a copy for my library.

While many people on social media are calling plagiarism based on the “alarming similarities” in these two books, and the citations were written to persuade readers of this view, I’m not convinced. This is why.

First, it’s not surprising at all that two authors would be publishing historical novels about the Kentucky Pack-Horse Librarians now. The articles about them in the Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and on NPR were circulating heavily in the past couple of years, so it was a natural topic for novelists writing about strong female characters in 20th-century settings.

Some of the cited similarities are plot devices I’d expect to see in any commercial fiction on the subject: for example, librarians getting accosted by suspicious/religious men of the hills in an isolated woodland setting. Novels need conflict, and in a situation where women are obliged to travel alone, such a character is an obvious choice as antagonist or villain. Today’s historical novelists seek to diversify their cast, and so the choice of a black librarian as a secondary character isn’t surprising either, even if it wasn’t historically documented. Both of these elements, in other words, aren't as unique as it may seem at the outset.

There’s a JSTOR article about the Pack-Horse Librarians* that mentions the Women’s Home Companion as a popular choice of reading material in these remote residences, and that child care was a popular topic in it. This is a core research resource, the top search result in Google Scholar on these librarians.  This article also says that the librarians met initial resistance from some of the mountain dwellers they served. And of course if you’re looking for folksy elements to include in fiction in a rural setting, home-made quilts are a good choice. I received one as a wedding gift myself. Many of the mentioned similarities aren’t significant plot elements of The Giver of Stars, but details sprinkled in to make the novel feel authentic.

There’s always a hope for an author that they’ll be the first, or the only, novelist to write on a unique topic. The truth is that, with the strongest market for historical fiction being a narrow band of female-focused 20th-century history, there is often a race to see who can be the first novelist to lay claim to a historical personage or subject. I can understand authors getting upset when that doesn’t happen, and if they feel like they’re competing for attention with another book.

Readers interested in historical subjects appreciate having multiple perspectives, though, particularly when each author has a unique angle. Both books made it to the LibraryReads list for their respective release months; was there ever any doubt?  From what I’ve read about Book Woman, the protagonists and underlying plot arcs of the two books are very different.

Both authors are experienced historical novelists, meaning that they know their genre (and its conventions) well. Both did considerable research on site, at around the same time, and likely used some of the same research material. Giving modern readers what they expect in a story about the Pack-Horse Librarians means tapping into common details and tropes, and going by the material provided, I suspect that’s what happened here.

* Boyd, Donald C., "The Book Women of Kentucky: The WPA Pack Horse Library Project." Libraries & the Cultural Record, 42(2): 2007.

-- Addendum to this post: I'll repeat below what I added in the comments shortly thereafter, after having read both books:

-- Yesterday night I read enough of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (I'm mostly finished) to solidify my opinion even more. The storylines and characters in both books are fundamentally different, and the way the "similarities" manifest in each novel are also very different on a contextual and structural level. What I've been seeing is a lot of rushing to judgment based on the way the citations in the Buzzfeed piece are presented (which, now that I've read both books, I find slanted and overly simplified) and because of a willingness to believe that an author with a larger profile and platform had to steal to get ahead. This is also a common trope, but it doesn't mean it's true. I hope more readers will take the trouble to check out both books firsthand. --

15 comments:

  1. To add: just found this article from Jezebel, which draws similar conclusions. The title in The Giver of Stars isn't a clever mashup, though, but a reference to a poem by Amy Lowell that has significance for the novel's characters.

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  2. Liz V.12:49 PM

    Back in 2012, I read a most enjoyable book, Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin. It was the first I had heard about these librarians and, regardless of the controversy, I look forward to reading more about the program.

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  3. Hi Liz, thanks for mentioning Wonderland Creek, which I had totally forgotten about. It goes to show that the program had been depicted in historical fiction before. I agree, it's definitely worth learning more about these librarians and their accomplishments.

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  4. Liz V.1:26 PM

    At the time, I mentioned Wonderland Creek on a blog and sent some links to an author who was interested in using the concept in a Colorado setting.

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  5. I really ought to read it! I remember hearing about it at the time and thinking that there weren't many novels about historical librarians. Now there are quite a few more.

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  6. Actually, this situation would make for an interesting book club discussion after reading both those books!

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  7. I agree - that's an excellent idea. I hope some book clubs do that.

    Yesterday night I read enough of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (I'm mostly finished) to solidify my opinion even more. The storylines and characters in both books are fundamentally different, and the way the "similarities" manifest in each novel are also very different on a contextual and structural level.

    What I've been seeing is a lot of rushing to judgment based on the way the citations in the Buzzfeed piece are presented (which, now that I've read both books, I find slanted and overly simplified) and because of a willingness to believe that an author with a larger profile and platform had to steal to get ahead. This is also a common trope, but it doesn't mean it's true. I hope more readers will take the trouble to check out both books firsthand.

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  8. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. It might seem like there is a big old world out there for writers of historical fiction to pluck from, but the reality is that availability of research materials, plotting requirements, and reader trends narrow the field considerably. May cooler heads prevail. Well done!

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  9. Thanks, Laurie - that's a great way of putting it.

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  10. Thanks so much for this post, Sarah, which I read with more than usual interest. Having read about the librarians in Nick Taylor's book, American Made, and being a big fan of the WPA, I too had thought seriously about writing a novel about that topic. I knew nothing of the Smithsonian article, nor the piece on NPR, though I cringed when the Authors Guild, in which I'm active, mentioned the librarians in a newsletter item. But I thought I was safe until I saw that Richardson had beat me to it, after which I chose another topic; I had no idea that Jojo Moyes was in on the act as well. Nor did I know about the plagiarism controversy, until now.

    But to add further perspective here, authors struggle against perceptions of what their books are about. When I signed with my agent in June, he warned me that my novel about a Polish-Jewish emigree in Paris in 1936 would be called WWII fiction. Really? That bothers me, both as a historian and a writer who hates to have his work homogenized, but my agent knows what he's talking about. The first several editors to turn the book down have talked about "what a crowded field WWII is."

    On the other hand, I just finished reading Mary Doria Russell's latest, The Women of the Copper Country. In the afterword, she says how her agent had to fight hard to find a place for the book, because who'd want a story about a Michigan copper strike in 1913? Well, I don't get that, because the story is terrific (though I have to say I found the characterizations wanting).

    As a writer, you look for stories that grab you, no matter when or where they take place--extra points if no one else has touched it. Then they tell you that you wrote something different from what you thought; that it's not original enough; or that it's too original, and nobody will understand it. Rejections are never easy to take, especially in those reductionist terms; but editors didn't make this stuff up. They look at sales of other books, including the ones they published that failed. They're not infallible, of course, but they're careful out of experience.

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  11. Thanks for your thoughts, Larry. It's intriguing that you'd also thought of the librarians as a possible fiction topic, and that you were drawn to it due to an interest in the WPA.

    Even though your novel's set a few years before the war, I can see why editors would be tempted to pull it under that umbrella when thinking of how it could be positioned in the marketplace. I also understand how Russell's novel could be considered original and different (that is, untrodden fictional ground) in some people's views, but too obscure in others. I'd been interested in reading it since I have family from Michigan, FWIW.

    I think this latest controversy will be concerning for authors who were already worried about carving out a niche of their own in a crowded market.

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  12. I don't know... the things I read in Buzzfeed make me very suspicious. Stuff like this isn't coincidence:

    1. BOOKWOMAN, Richardson 5/7/19 Sourcebooks

    Chpt 5 Pg 36

    Hillman Vester Frazier lies in wait in the woods for female librarian Cussy, accosts her, and accuses her of “Doing the devil’s work by carrying sinful books to good and Godly folks. You’re unclean, born of sin….You’re a devil, girl.” Then there is a scuffle and the librarian’s mule lurches towards Frazier and tramples him.


    THE GIVER OF STARS, Moyes, 10/8/19 Penguin

    Prologue Pg 4

    Hillman Clem McCullough lies in wait in the woods for female librarian Margery, accosts her, and says, “You think we don’t know what you’ve been doing? You think we don’t know that you’ve been spreading among decent, God-fearing women. You got the devil in you, Margery O’Hare, and there’s only one way to get the devil out of a girl like you.” Then there is a scuffle and the librarian’s mule lurches, stumbling. The hillman is knocked to the ground and trampled by the mule.

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  13. All I'll add is that I definitely recommend reading both books, rather than relying on the descriptions in the Buzzfeed piece. My opinion is based on that experience, although I realize others may not agree.

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  14. When I read of these books, ironically and sadly, these regions were also in the news for wanting to cut salaries and other funds to librarians and libraries as unnecessary. Who needs books in the time of smart phones, they say. At the same time these less urbanized regions also have a lack of both internet and cell phone services. The library of the nearest town is the only place their kids can get the internet needed for their school work too. But then, these people probably also don't think school matters either.

    Sign me, ya! Bitter!

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  15. I hear you...

    It is often very challenging to get funding and support for core public services such as libraries in rural areas. This is about rural Arkansas, not Kentucky, but your comment reminded me of this recent NYT piece.

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