October 2020 – The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
Zion’s readers stepped back a few decades in time with their October selection The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by author Kim Michele Richardson. Back to the Depression-era 1930’s into the hollows and backwoods of Kentucky where we met one of the few remaining Blue People, Cussy Mary Carter. Miss Carter had embarked on a job as a pack horse librarian with the WPA – the Works Progress Administration, a Roosevelt New Deal agency which employed millions of job seekers in public works projects.
While many of our readers knew of the WPA, we had not known of the pack horse librarian project, and even fewer of us were aware of the Blue People. The pack horse librarian program was exactly like it sounded – people, mostly women, carried reading material on horseback (or in Cussy Mary’s case, muleback – Junia the mule was a most likable character) through forests and dells to isolated houses thereby giving people contact with the outside world. Even if the news was outdated and the books and papers tattered and torn, it was a contact and resource that brightened lives. Librarians sorted and mended donated reading material that came from charitable groups and even created their own books of recipes, tips, and medical hints. The hill women were their best customers as well as the children who were anxious to advance their reading skills. However, in the patriarchal hill culture, librarians often ran into men who felt the material was suspicious and subversive; the men could be very intimidating in their denial of the service.
In addition to the distrust of outside knowledge, Cussy Mary (known as Bluet by many customers) was disliked, if not feared, as a Blue. She was a descendant of the Blue Fugates, an actual family who settled in the Kentucky hills in the 1800’s and carried a recessive methemoglobinemia (Met-H) gene. When both parents had the gene, (which, in an extremely rural area with a small gene pool, might not be such a rarity) the child was born with light blue skin that darkened with emotion. Their blood was actually brown rather than red. Scientific research was unknown to the hill people, who still relied on home remedies for most illnesses. So, Blues were considered at worst a sign of the devil’s evil and at best Colored, and discrimination against colored people was the reality of the day.
Our readers watched as Cussy Mary navigates forced marriage (thankfully very brief), fear, discrimination, the elements, and dangerous animals while struggling to keep her job which provided needed money to her father’s coal mining income. She had to endure a stalking “preacher” while getting to know her patrons and trying to add more, as well as a local doctor determined to find the reason for her coloring and yet protect her as much as possible. As the story progresses, she is drawn into her patrons’ daily problems and tries, with limited resources, to find answers for them. The abject poverty of these people was eye-opening to some of our readers, and the conditions in which they lived were just horrible. One reader compared it to a third world country. However, we felt the author did a great job of portraying the hill people’s innate dignity and stoic acceptance of life’s curve balls. Watching your children die of starvation would crush your soul, yet these people would pick themselves up and move on. Self-reliance wasn’t just an abstract concept but their bedrock.
Yet, as authentic as some of the portrayals, some readers felt many of the characters were predictable stereotypes – the biddies at the library, hateful and funny at the same time; the old boy southern sheriff; and, yes, even Cussy Mary’s eventual love interest, Jackson. But as one reader noted, the story was just so good that you didn’t mind the stereotypes. We watched the coal miners struggle to organize while the large mining companies just ground them into the dust for profit; we saw people climbing out of poverty by the strength of their wits; we saw the similarities between the pack horse librarians and the horseback visiting nurse service in the Midwest; and we found the crop tips shared by the librarians to be a sort of early forerunner of an agricultural extension agency. We marveled how hill people lived off the land even if we couldn’t imagine eating some of the stuff. It was no wonder they suffered from various illness, something that one reader pointed out was widespread beyond the hills and revealed nationwide when potential draftees for World War II were turned away for severe vitamin deficiencies. It was after World War II that vitamin fortified food was produced on a mass scale, such as peanut butter, milk, cheese, cereal.
While it was interesting that the cover of the book did not show a blue tinge on the woman’s skin, a reader shared that in Indian culture, Krishna is often shown with blue skin as are other handsome men and women. Although a daily medicine had been developed that would “cure” the Blue people, Cussy Mary found the side effects so debilitating that the cure was worse than the disease. It is true that beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, but beauty often shines from the depth of a person’s character. Many readers found the character of Cussy Mary to be plucky, generous, and empathetic. The depth of the author’s research was evident in the novel but also revealed in the information and actual pictures attached at the end of the story. She wove pearls of homespun wisdom throughout the book, including this that strongly resonated with one of our readers: A protesting husband and father told Cussy Mary that there’s “a sneaky time thief in them books”. He complained because his wife’s and children’s chores were not being done, but our readers saw the relevance as we have often lost ourselves in books while tasks go undone. However, we just excuse it as bibliotherapy!
As an interesting side note, a reader had discovered that another author, JoJo Moyes, published a book called The Giver of Stars, also dealing with the Kentucky pack horse librarians, a few months after Ms. Richardson published her novel. Ms. Richardson has pointed out extremely similar themes and language that might suggest Ms. Moyes borrowed heavily from Bookwoman. Whatever might have happened, shedding light on the dedicated people who appreciated the power and inspiration of the written word and labored to bring it to others can only be appreciated by later readers. Six of Zion’s readers accorded this historical novel a vote of two thumbs up, six gave it one thumb up, and two were neutral. In November, we meet to discuss Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon. Happy reading!