Monday, December 30, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson is a touching novel that combines two fascinating historical elements: the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Service and the Kentucky Blue people.

During the Great Depression, the WPA funded the hiring of impoverished women to bring books to rural communities. The packhorse librarians served a vital function, connecting isolated people with reading material and with human contact. These courageous, dedicated women (and rarely men) covered hundreds of miles on horses, mules, or donkeys to serve their patrons. They also transported letters, read to the blind, ill, and illiterate, and brought comfort to the poor and starving people of mountain communities.

The Kentucky Blue people were members of a pedigree carrying a mutation causing methemoglobinemia. Affected family members have blue-tinged skin.

Cussy Mary Carter, nicknamed Bluet, the fictional protagonist of this novel, is one of the Blue people. She believes she is the last of their kind. She is also a packhorse librarian.

Cussy Mary lives alone with her father, a coal miner. Her mother is dead and her father has black-lung disease. He wants to see her married, to have a man to take care of her. She wants to be left alone. She believes no man worthwhile would marry a “Blue.” For a time, it seems she’s right. More importantly, she loves her job. Her patrons depend on her. If she marries, she’d have to resign.

The novel does a beautiful job getting inside Cussy Mary’s head, showing how difficult it is to be “other.” The townspeople (many of them, not all) consider her “colored,” subject to all the laws affecting the few African Americans in town. Yet because her color is so different, so unnatural, people fear her even more. She is “hunted” by the local preacher who believes she’s a devil. She’s scorned and tormented by some of her fellow librarians. She’s excluded from the social life of Troublesome Creek.

Her love of books and dedication to the library is her salvation. It allows her to connect with people who value her. They see her, not her skin color. Cussy’s care of the people on her route, her compassion for their troubles and desire to help, make her a true heroine. One of her patrons, a new arrival to Troublesome Creek, is a sensitive, hardworking, well-read man who falls for her, adding a subdued but lovely romance to the story.

The extreme poverty, the rigors of life in the Kentucky hills, and the harsh exploitation by the coal companies provides the framework for the story. The author brings the setting and people alive. This book is wonderful.