The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.”
T.S. Eliot (as quoted in The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek)
… and if people would stop dog-earring the pages, and folding the covers behind the spines of those books, I might hold out that hope, but that’s a topic for another time.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is the fictional tale of Cussy Mary Carter, whose story comes alive through the interweaving of the factual historical Pack Horse Librarian Project (PHLP) and the distressing genetic fate that befalls The Fugates: a real Kentucky family that suffers from a rare blue-skin condition. A genetic anomaly causes their blood to be chocolate brown from a lack of oxygen, which gives their skin a blue tint, as a result. The medical term for this condition is Methemoglobinemia, and although as of today the Fugate family descendants have lost their blue colouring, it can appear visible when they are cold or become flushed with emotion. This hereditary disorder is the ostracising affliction that Cussy Mary bears, and is that which causes many of the horrid trials and tribulations she faces throughout this harrowing novel by Kim Michele Richardson.
Cussy Mary doesn’t hear her real name very often. She is fondly referred to, by the folks on her route, as the ‘Book Woman,’ and to others in the community she is simply ‘Bluet.’ As a dutiful and proud packhorse librarian for the destitute hill-people of Kentucky, her job is as dangerous as it is essential. Still, there is nothing else in the world that she would prefer to do.
In fact, there isn’t much else she is allowed to do, as she is the last of the ‘blue people.’ The Carter clan has the peculiar occurrence of being born with blue-tinged skin. Cussy Mary and her family have been discriminated against and mistreated because of the fear that grips some of the townsfolk, as they worry that they may catch this affliction like a common cold, and end up outcasts like the Carters. Little was known of this condition, so their ignorance reigned, and they chose to hate.
Cussy Mary’s book route and beloved position as librarian came via the WPA (Works Progress Administration) initiative, put forth by the Roosevelt government during the depression era. This transformational project ran from 1935 to 1943 and provided books to 1.5 million Kentuckians, and allowed for almost 1,000 women to support their families in 48 counties throughout the state. For our unrelenting protagonist, being a librarian was a calling that fostered purpose, determination, and self-worth, amidst a world that otherwise offered her nothing.
It is painful to read of the abuse that Cussy Mary has to endure at the hands of some members of her community. No matter how dark things get or what befalls her, the light of Cussy Mary’s spirit lifts her above it. Her kindness and merciful disposition see her forgive those that mistreat her, even as they continually try to bring her down. Her stoicism exemplifies humility and mercy, while the bigots arrogantly rally for cruelty.
Not all the Kentucky people were vicious in this story. Many of Cussy Mary’s patrons were her biggest champions and proved loyal to her until the end. The excitement that beamed from the book lovers of her route was infectious and was second only to the impact these written treasures she would provide them had upon their lives. It was a joyous occasion for the ‘Book Woman’ every time she rode up on her ornery mule Junia (See the crocheted bookmark I made of her below!) and deposited knowledge into the waiting arms of her devoted readers. I was fascinated by the creative ways the librarians would shield disappointment from their awaiting communities by enhancing their inadequate libraries and making sure there was enough material to loan.
‘In our spare time, us librarians made books filled with hill wisdom, recipes and sewing patterns, health remedies, and cleaning tips that folks passed on. Newspapers sent us their old issues, and we’d cut out poems, articles, essays, and other news from the world, and pack the mountain books.‘
Richardson has crafted a fascinating tale made richer by the gorgeous prose and imagery as she carries you away to another time and place. I found myself flying through this compulsively readable story and admit that I wasn’t ready for it to end.
‘In the dust-bitten yard, a leaning chicken coop and tiny wooden goat pen nestled beside the tall one-room school, its chestnut harvested from the forest, the log gaps daubed with mud and grasses. Smoke percolated from the chimney, curling over black hand-split shingles and skittering up the side of a craggy, treed hill.‘
There are painful moments within these pages, dealing with starvation, racism, bigotry, sexual assault, and death, so please be forewarned that this may not be a book that just anyone would want to take on. The strong themes of loyalty and love, mixed with the importance of the librarians and their books, make this story endearing to me. If you have the fortitude to withstand the discomfort that lies within these truths, the reward is a beautiful tale of resiliency that will warm your heart and have you cheering for The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.