In The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Kim Michele Richardson tells two stories that have, until now, been overlooked in most fiction and history: the story of the blue people of Kentucky and the Pack Horse Librarians of the 1930s, both of whom are incredible examples of the resilience to triumph over difficult circumstances.
Cussy Mary Carter lives near Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. She is a young, unmarried woman living with her father, who works in the coal mine along with most of the men in town. She was named after Cussy, France, the place from which her great grandfather, Martin Fugate, immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Kentucky. Ever since her mother died a few years earlier, Cussy Mary’s father has been anxious to see her married and “respectable.” He keeps searching for potential suitors and inviting them to their home, setting the “courting candle” for a good, long visit. But Cussy Mary knows that marriage for her is unlikely because she, and her father, are blues.
Being a blue was a real condition in the early 20th century, traced back to the Fugate family who experienced a genetic condition now known as methemoglobinemia. It causes the skin of those affected to be blue, ranging from a deep indigo to a light, pale blue. Because Cussy Mary and her father are blues, the people in Troublesome Creek often won’t speak to them unless it is absolutely necessary. They certainly don’t socialize with them, so it will be nearly impossible to find someone willing to marry her. Still, her father keeps trying.
But Cussy Mary doesn’t want anything to do with getting married. She’s happy living with, and taking care of, her father. She’s also happy working as a Pack Horse Librarian, a group of women that were part of the WPA set up by President Franklin Roosevelt to loan books, magazines and newspapers to those living up in the hills, far away from established libraries. She loves taking books to the patrons along her route, who include single homesteaders, married couples of all ages, families and widows.
Cussy Mary loves being a “book woman”, as many of her patrons call her. And it is rewarding work. But it is also difficult and challenging. It means riding daily for hours on her mule, which is laden with library materials between the small homesteads scattered throughout the Kentucky hills. Any woman travelling alone for the miles between residences is at risk. And, being a blue, Cussy Mary faces the additional threat of being “colored” and someone that no one else will look out for or protect in a conflict. Yet, she makes her daily deliveries undaunted.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a love letter to the women who daily risked their lives delivering books and other reading materials to those far removed from the traditional realms of “book learning.” It is also an ode to a group of people that, as with all racism, were subjected to terrible treatment and crimes because of the color of their skin. Richardson also does an admirable job of portraying the inhabitants of the Kentucky Mountains with grace and dignity. It is never easy to portray those on the “outskirts” of society without falling into pity or condescension. Richardson does neither, but realistically portrays the extreme challenges faced by these small communities during the Great Depression. The result is a compelling and enjoyable read about one young woman’s determination to be the best possible person she could be, and how that made her the invaluable resource her community desperately needs.