Kim Michele Richardson is a resident of Kentucky, where she has worked with Habitat for Humanity building houses and where she is an advocate for the prevention of child abuse, partnering with the U.S. Navy for the prevention of domestic violence. She is the author of three novels (Liar’s Bench, GodPretty in the Tobacco Field and The Sisters of Glass Ferry) and the memoir The Unbreakable Child. Richardson is also a book critic for the New York Journal of Books and the founder of Shy Rabbit, a writers’ residency scholarship. Her latest novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, is about the historical blue people of Kentucky and the Kentucky Packhorse librarians, a WPA Program during the great depression. Richardson recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek?
For 80 years these brave, heroic Kentucky packhorse librarians were ignored and only given a nod in a couple of amazing children’s books—the women's historic legacy, but a small footnote in history. Their courage and dedication for spreading literacy to the poorest pocket of the United States—the hills of eastern Kentucky and during its most violent era, deserved more in literary history. I felt it would be a privilege to tell their story. And when I learned of the blue-skinned people of Kentucky who suffered from congenital Methemoglobinemia, I was determined to give them a voice they’d long been denied.
There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t feel a tremendous honor for the opportunity to finally introduce these fierce, female packhorse librarians, and the blue people from my home state of Kentucky.
How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek?
It took over three years of 14 to 16 hour days doing research and writing for The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. And another two years before that was spent collecting information and percolating the story in my mind.
I spent thousands of hours exploring everything from fauna to flora to folklore to food, and longtime traditions indigenous to Appalachia. I’m also able to live in that landscape and spend time with native Appalachians who have taught me the lyrics and language of their people and ancestors. Other research took me to coal-mining towns and their history, visiting doctors, speaking with a hematologist to learn about congenital Methemoglobinemia, and exploring fire tower look-outs and their history. Years ago, I started collecting everything I could find on the packhorse librarians, poring over archives, old newspapers, pictures, the history, etc. I spent many hours on Roosevelt’s New Deal and WPA programs, and also conducted interviews. There was the fun and interesting research on mules.
And last, during this remarkable and sometimes crazy and dangerous journey of living full time in Appalachia for research, I clumsily fell off a mountain and received seven breaks to my arm, and my husband caught Lyme’s disease.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about the Pack Horse Librarians or the blue people of Kentucky during your research?
During the Depression, Kentucky’s Appalachian region was hit the hardest. There was little work, coal mines were closing down and all around abject poverty ran rampant with people literally dropping dead from starvation. Families lived up treacherous mountains with no access to the outside world, no roads, no electricity, no libraries, and very limited educational opportunities and schools. That the Packhorse Project became wildly successful and a much-beloved program despite all the obstacles, was truly a tribute to these fearless Kentucky packhorse librarians.
Another surprise came while researching Methemoglobinemia, the gene disorder the blue-skinned people of Kentucky have. In 1820, Martin Fugate, a French orphan, came to Kentucky to claim a land grant on the banks of Troublesome Creek in Kentucky’s isolated wilderness. Martin married a full-blooded, red-headed, white-skinned Kentuckian named Elizabeth Smith. Martin and Elizabeth had no idea what awaited them. They had seven children and out of those, four were blue. It was insurmountable and against all odds that, oceans away, Martin would find a bride who carried the same blue-blood recessive gene.
I understand that you were contacted by a member of the Fugate family after they had read your novel. How did that happen and what did they say?
For years, I worried about the Fugates, fretted about giving them the true and honest voice they never had. I wanted to embrace their difference in this tale, lift them up, and educate others about these isolated people who had been shunned and shamed because of an extremely rare hereditary gene disorder.
A month or so ago, I woke up to a surprise email from Mr. Douglas Fugate, a veteran and retired librarian, and also a descendant of the blue-skinned people.
Mr. Fugate wrote:
"Troublesome Creek is in the hills of East Kentucky. Cussy Mary is a “Blue”. She is born with blue skin. She faces prejudice, racism, and being a societal outcast that minorities have endured for centuries. There is a “cure” for the blue skin. However, the “cure” presents symptoms that are worse than the disease. Cussy Mary is the Book Woman. She delivers to families, individuals, and schools.
Miss Richardson’s writing is superb. Her landscape descriptions, the attitudes of both the mountain folk and those who avoid them are on the mark. She is extremely accurate in her descriptions of racism and prejudice depicted in the mountain communities and large and small towns and cities in the country.
There are moments when you will shed a tear. You will feel the pride of accomplishment as the children feast on the written word. You will feel the embarrassment of being an outcast, and rejoice in the human compassion expressed through various characters.
These events will leave the characters, the events and the feelings with you long after you have finished the book. I have relations that come from Troublesome Creek. I have discovered that I, too, have the “blue streak” in my blood. I was delighted with the whole work and sad when I came to the last page. This is a wonderful story and well worth your time. FIVE Stars”—Douglas J. Fugate 1SG, USA Retired
I teared up as I shared this unexpected review with my colleagues. It was the strongest validation I could ever receive for my most important work.
I’ve also heard you say that a librarian saved your life. What did they do?
I grew up under the grinding heels of poverty, spending my first decade in a rural Kentucky orphanage and then on to foster care, and beyond, to finding myself homeless at age fourteen. As a foster child, I remember going to my first library one lonely summer and checking out a book. The librarian sized me up and then quietly said, “Only one? You look smarter than a one-book read, and I bet we can find you more than just one.” She reached under her counter, snapped open a folded, brown paper sack, handed it to me, and then marched me over to shelves filled with glorious books. I was shocked that I could even get more than one book, much less a bag full of precious books, and I was moved by her compassion, kindness, and wisdom. Librarians are lifelines for so many, giving us powerful resources to help us become empowered.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
An old copy of Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart that a dear friend gave me.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
E.B. White's Charlotte's Web is a masterpiece that tapped into my love for nature and animals. And every time I read it, I learned something new. It has the wonderful Hitchcockian first line: "Where is papa going with that axe?" and is infused with magical verses of dewy spider webs, "Some Pig" miracles and unconditional friendship. Some Book!
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
There are so many talented writers out there to pick from, it makes the choice difficult. But Harriette Simpson Arnow, John Fox, Jr., Gwyn Hyman Rubio, and Walter Tevis, are some of my longtime, favorite, Kentucky novelists who wrote unforgettable masterpieces. Each one brings the pages to life with rich, evocative landscapes, beautifully told stories and highly skilled prose.
What is a book you've faked reading?
I haven't. I'm truly okay with saying I couldn't finish something.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I bought two copies of Pauline's by Pauline Tabor, one for myself and another for a colleague, because, who wouldn't?! The memoirs of this legendary Kentucky madam is slipped between gilt edges, jacketed with a crushed, red, velvet cover and lock. Pauline was a keen, successful businesswoman who kept a milk can on the porch of her famous brothel to signify she was open, and then cleverly moved it to the graveled driveway to let customers know she was closed.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambit is inspirational and left a profound effect. I found it to be a truly beautifully written testament of the human condition, survival and compassion.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Bren McClain’s, One Good Mama Bone is one I always shout out. If you can make me ugly-cry and love a cow like that, then have me walk that book up the mountain to my 85-yr-old neighbors who did the same and who also took sleeping shifts that night so they could both finish it by morning, I'll buy your grocery list.
Recently, I read If The Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss, and I highly recommend it. Weiss’s voice is rich and authentic, and she beautifully delivers an absolute jaw-dropping tale of human resilience and strength that breaks your heart and binds it back together again.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone. It’s an incredibly short read that haunts with its grim landscape and breathtaking prose.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
A perfect day would be to spend it with Jimmy Carter. To able to meet with one of the world’s greatest humanitarians would be a treasure and a gift to cherish.
What are you working on now?
I’m into research and working on something that’s too early to reveal, much less close to writing the end. But who knows, maybe it’ll end with a red, velvet cover... or perhaps a blue. ☺