The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek…
About the Book:
The hardscrabble folks of Troublesome Creek have to scrap for everything—everything except books, that is. Thanks to Roosevelt’s Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project, Troublesome’s got its very own traveling librarian, Cussy Mary Carter.
Cussy’s not only a book woman, however, she’s also the last of her kind, her skin a shade of blue unlike most anyone else. Not everyone is keen on Cussy’s family or the Library Project, and a Blue is often blamed for any whiff of trouble. If Cussy wants to bring the joy of books to the hill folks, she’s going to have to confront prejudice as old as the Appalachia and suspicion as deep as the holler.
Inspired by the true blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Kentucky Pack Horse library service of the 1930s, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a story of raw courage, fierce strength, and one woman’s belief that books can carry us anywhere — even back home.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek merges two uniquely fascinating histories plucked right out of the wild Kentucky mountains. Before I go any further, I’ll draw your attention to this extract from the author’s notes:
Inspired by the true and gentle historical blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Kentucky Pack Horse librarians born of Roosevelt’s New Deal Acts, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek showcases a fascinating and important footnote of history. Methemoglobinemia is the extremely rare disease that causes skin to be blue. In the United States, it was first found in the Fugates of Troublesome Creek in eastern Kentucky. 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. 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.
The Pack Horse Library Project was established in 1935 and ran until 1943. The service was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and an effort to create jobs for women and bring books and reading material into Appalachia, into the poorest and most isolated areas in eastern Kentucky that had few schools, no libraries, and inaccessible roads. The librarians were known as “Book Women,” though there were a very small number of men among their ranks. These fearsome Kentucky librarians travelled by horse, mule, and sometimes by foot and even rowboat to reach the remotest areas, in creeks and up crags, into coves, disconnected pockets, and black forests and to towns named Hell-fer-Sartin, Troublesome, and Cut Shin, sometimes traveling as much as one hundred or more miles a week in rain, sleet, or snow. Pack Horse librarians were paid twenty-eight dollars a month and had to provide their own mounts. Books and reading materials and places for storing and sorting the material were all donated and not supplied by the WPA’s payroll. With few resources and little financial help, the Pack Horse librarians collected donated books and reading materials from the Boy Scouts, PTAs, women’s clubs, churches, and the state health department. The librarians came up with ingenious ways to provide more reading resources, such as making scrapbooks with collected recipes and housecleaning tips that the mountain people passed on to them in gratitude for their service. Despite the financial obstacles, the harshness of the land, and the sometimes fierce mistrust of the people during the most violent era of eastern Kentucky’s history, the Pack Horse service was accepted and became dearly embraced. These clever librarians turned their traveling library program into a tremendous success. In the years of its service, over one thousand women served in the Pack Horse Project, and it was reported that nearly 600,000 residents in thirty eastern Kentucky counties considered “pauper counties” were served by them.
Both of these incredible histories are merged within The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, deep in the Kentucky mountains. This is hardscrabble life like you wouldn’t believe. The only source of income is from coal mining, but the companies are only after one thing, as much black gold as they can get, with the minimum wage and the minimum standards of employment with no regard for safety. People aren’t even paid with money, but with a credit system that allows them to only shop at the company store. The corruption is entrenched and those seeking to unionise more often than not ‘disappear’.
“Daughter, take a look at the fright out there. They’re murderers, gun thugs, them Company men are. Something must be done. Folks are worse off than before they arrived.” Pa coughed. “We’re working seventeen -hour days down on a rocky floor with bloody kneecaps in a black hole for scratch, and all the while fearing the next cave-in, the next blast that sends us to our fiery grave.”
Violence is rife, mistrust runs deep and inbreeding is par for the course. Law enforcement is loose, dependent upon access, which is not widespread given the way people live dotted all through the mountains. I studied some units of geography at university, one of them on the social geography of North America. I remember this area, the Appalachian mountains, and this was where I first came across my knowledge of the blue mountain people. I’ve never read a novel that has taken the reader so deeply into a hidden history before, and done it with such a depth of understanding for the area being written about.
‘A woman violated would be damned— persecuted— and dismissed from her job like Postmistress Gracie Banks had been after she was raped last year and told. And there’d been more than a few other Gracie Banks who’d blabbered. Rarely was justice served and then only if the woman’s kin took it upon themselves to mete out punishment in a quiet, lawless way. Disgraced, soiled like that, even womenfolk would silence, shun, and cast blame on the tainted female— make good ’n’ sure she’d carry the sin of the man’s stain for the rest of her days. Over the years, I’d seen that burden in a few women’s hooded eyes around town. I remember Mama telling Pa when she thought I weren’t listening that the female’s silence let those vile godless men walk free among their prey, boldly pass their sufferers on the streets of Troublesome with a sly tip to the hat, a smug pat to the crotch.’
‘I know’d Harriett’s mama had married kin, that her kind had relations with close relatives. It just didn’t show up in her pasty-white flesh, only in the small eyes hugging her sky-saluting nose. Her clan was the same as most kinfolk in these parts. Courting was hard, and a horse and mule could only travel so far, making it difficult to meet and marry outside these hills. Still, my great-grandpa’d done just that, all the way from France . And here Harriett was the one who pined after her cousin.’
Against this backdrop, Cussy Mary – or Bluet as she is more commonly, yet less preferably, called – traverses the mountains delivering and collecting library books to those who wouldn’t otherwise see a book ever, much less learn to read one. She reads to people, teaches others to read, spends time with the lonely, delivers books to a remote school and a community of mountain folk that never leave their holler. This novel is a testament about the importance of reading in changing lives, the joy and connection that can stem from books, and the way ignorance can be pierced through education.
‘Being able to return to the books was a sanctuary for my heart. And a joy bolted free, lessening my own grievances, forgiving spent youth and dying dreams lost to a hard life, the hard land, and to folks ’ hard thoughts and partialities.’
‘Mr. Moffit didn’t like folks who weren’t his color. He used to demand that I stay put in the yard . But his longing for the printed word soon weakened his demands, and he eventually allowed Angeline to bring me inside to read at the small wooden table, so desperate was he for the books to help him escape his misery, misery at never having enough to fill his belly, not even enough spare coins to buy himself a couple of bullets to maybe shoot a rabbit, and now the misery at the poison inching its way deeper into him from his gunshot.’
‘I loved that the books were growing their little minds. Pa was wrong. They needed books more than anything else this place had to offer. They were starved for the learning, the know-how on leaving this hard land for a better, softer one.’
Cussy Mary is blue. Genuinely blue. She’s about the loneliest person I’ve ever read about. People fear her more than any other type of person. Going to town is arduous and incredibly painful. Her job is her life, and out on the mountains, delivering books, her colour matters less, but it takes a long time, and many awful things to happen, before she can accept herself just the way she was born. Her pain brought me to tears over and over, not just because of the prejudice she was subjected to, but also because of the lack of self-worth she was filled with on account of being blue. She had so much to offer, yet most people just wanted to keep their distance and ridicule her. I spent a good portion of this novel filled with fear for her. There was this feeling that pervaded where you had a sense that to many, she was less than human. It was so wrong, just so, so wrong.
‘I touched the baby’s hand, my own eyes filling, my mind grappling with losses, the unbearable pain of loneliness. Nary a townsfolk, not one God-fearing soul, had welcomed me or mine into town, their churches, or homes in all my nineteen years on this earth. Instead, every hard Kentucky second they’d filled us with an emptiness from their hate and scorn. It was as if Blues weren’t allowed to breathe the very same air their loving God had given them, not worthy of the tiniest spoonful He’d given to the smallest forest critter. I was nothing in their world. A nothingness to them. And I looked into Angeline’s dying eyes and saw my truths, and the truths that would be her daughter’s.’
“Well, them cloths are a lot like folks. Ain’t much difference at all. Some of us is more spiffed up than others, some stiffer, and still, some softer. There’s the colorful and dull, ugly and pretty, old, new ’uns. But in the end we’s all fabric, cut from His cloth. Fabric, and just that.”
The poverty depicted within this novel is startlingly disturbing. People literally starving to death. Whole families becoming extinct, pride preventing them from accessing welfare, prejudice preventing them from seeking help. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is unlike any other novel I’ve ever read. Starkly beautiful in its prose, confronting and desperately painful to comprehend. That it’s so deeply grounded in truth just made it all the more profound. Cussy’s story made my heart hurt, yet despite the grim reality punctuating every single scene throughout the novel, hope sparked in the most unlikely of places. It’s an incredible novel. One of the best I’ve read.
‘I curled myself into a tight ball on the blood-soaked Kentucky soil, wailing for Henry and all the Henrys in these dark hollows who’d never be a common grown-up. Stuck forever as Peter Pans.’
“This old land.” Jackson stared off. “It sure makes a man yearn for it and want to flee it altogether.”
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek will take you to a place you’ve probably heard little of during a time when life was perhaps at its most lacking and desperate. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, which is why I’ve included so many quotes. It really does speak for itself.
Thanks is extended to Sourcebooks Landmark via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of The Book Woman Of Troublesome Creek for review.
About the Author:
Kim Michele Richardson lives in Kentucky and resides part-time in western North Carolina. She is an advocate for the prevention of child abuse and domestic violence and has partnered with the U.S. Navy globally to bring awareness and education to the prevention of domestic violence. She is the author of the bestselling memoir The Unbreakable Child and is the founder of the tiny home Shy Rabbit, a writers/ artists scholarship residency . Her novels include Liar’s Bench, GodPretty in the Tobacco Field, and The Sisters of Glass Ferry.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark
Released on 7th May 2019