In three recent audiobooks of historic fiction, I found myself lured off to research real-life events and details in these stories. Each detour made the audiobooks even richer. I was immediately entranced by the Packhorse Librarians project, the focus of Jojo Moyes’s GIVER OF STARS. You can see a librarian in the image above, from the Kentucky Digital Library. Between 1935 and 1943, this WPA initiative delivered thousands of library books, recipes, and other reading material to the hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky. In Moyes’s audiobook, narrator Julia Whelan helps us follow the “book women” of Baileyville, Kentucky. In the first scene, one of the librarians, Margery, riding her mule with a saddlebag of books, is accosted on a remote track. Yes, the project was real, and yes, the librarians often rode mules—this Smithsonian Magazine article is full of details. Are you hooked yet? Learning about the library project and thinking about the stamina and dedication the librarians made the fictional GIVER OF STARS story even more interesting.
Not far from eastern Kentucky, the town of Edenton, North Carolina, and BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN offered me a different sort of detour: U.S. Post Office murals. The New Deal art initiative was administered through the Treasury Department beginning in the 1930s. There were competitions to select artists for the commission—just as recounted in Diane Chamberlain’s novel. Even though the artists often depicted local scenes or heritage, the artists themselves were not necessary local. The essence of BIG LIES is that the young artist, Anna, must live and work within a cultural context wholly new to her. My interest in the Post Office murals took me on the trail of the Living New Deal, where you can search state by state and town by town for the murals. I’m itching for a road trip to see murals that feature the work of Depression artists, including well-knowns like Rockwell Kent, Ben Shahn, and Waldo Pierce, as well as hundreds of other artists whose works stylistically and subjectively represented the era. An article in Carolina Country lists more than 30 murals that still exist just in North Carolina. Back to listening to BIG LIES, the restoration of the mural creates the contemporary timeline of the story. There’s a feature on the restoration of Lincolnton, NC, mural—presumably without the drama of murder and madness we hear in the audiobook. And I should mention that narrator Susan Bennett gets an Earphones Award for her exceptional performance.
My last detour took me literally overseas. Alan Hlad’s THE LONG FLIGHT HOME also earned an Earphones Award for Simon Vance’s performance. The context of Hlad’s story is World War II outside of London, where a young girl and her grandfather are part of the National Pigeon Service, volunteers raising homing pigeons for an espionage mission called Operation Columba. Fact-checking time—yes, the Pigeon Service was real, and several of the birds received the Dickin Medal, a wartime service award given to animals. Another topic to send listeners off for more background!
All three audiobooks pack in mystery, romance, and drama as well as the historical detail. They also all get terrific performances from narrators Julia Whelan, Susan Bennett, and Simon Vance. The detours aside, these audiobooks are highly satisfying all on their own.