Historical fiction: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published 2019, 308 pages
This novel about the book women of Kentucky was eye opening for me. Wonderfully written, SO evocative of place and time, vividly emotional, and on top of all that, it's educational. I love that surprise that happens when I pick up a novel expecting a pleasant read and instead find myself going online to research Blue People of Kentucky and Horse Pack Librarians. The best of both worlds! And, by the way, Troublesome Creek is a real place.
Set in hill country of Kentucky in the 1930s, poverty is rampant, coal mines are the main job opportunities and are killing the workers, education is almost nonexistent but prejudice is everywhere. It's a grim period of time. Enter Roosevelt's WPA ( Works Progress Adminstration) which established the Pack Horse librarian program. The author includes a helpful Author's Note with photos to give some background on the blue-skinned people as well as the librarians (which I didn't discover until I'd already done some research on my own).
"It was difficult enough being colored, much less being my odd, ugly color and the last colored of my kind. Somehow, folks like Harriet and Eula made it worse, made sure their color, any color was better than mine. I was an affliction on their kind and mankind. And I was to stay put, and exactly where they wanted to keep me put. Beneath them. Always and alone."
I enjoyed the descriptions of the area and the colloquial dialog which made the story even more "of a place". I particularly loved chapter 33 where she visits a patron every Friday that's so far up in the hills it takes most of a day to get there. With her book satchels weighing 50 pounds "the mule plowed heavily along rugged passes thick with vines, branches, and briars, crossed tickling creek waters, and twisted around thickets of scrub pine until we came to a pinhole passage that kept us from going further." The patron that meets her walks 8 miles each way to exchange books with her each week! And, Cussy gets a genuine compliment - made my heart happy!
"Astonished, I could feel my face warm. No one, not a soul, ever said my color was fine. The best!"
Richardson brought her research to life in Cussy Mary - in spite of her lack of self worth, in spite of her harsh life of poverty, in spite of dealing with prejudice every day, this 19 year old is determined. Determined to deliver reading material to the hill folks on her librarian route. Much like the postal service, the librarians' routes were often precarious or even dangerous, and yet they delivered their books rain, or sleet, or snow! I'm in awe.
Cussy Mary (nicknamed Bluet) is a multi-faceted character. On the one hand, due to the discrimination she faces daily because of her unusual skin color, her self doubt and lack of self worth, her shrinking from touch and even talking with people, and her tendency to absorb all the hurt instead of standing up for herself makes her seem ..... sad and a little weak. But, her determination to help her patrons, to keep her job at all costs even when having to listen to hateful language and do the scut work jobs, to persevere in her kindness to others in need is, in fact, signs of wonderful strength - she just didn't know how to see it in herself.
My heart ached for some of her patrons - their health and poverty so eloquently described. I found myself reaching for the tissues more than a couple times! This gem of a book ticked all the boxes for me - some excellent characters (even the nasty prejudiced ones are portrayed realistically), a touching story of a woman overcoming difficult circumstances, emotionally engaging without being sweet, and I even learned new information.
I hope this review encourages you to pick up The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. I'll be recommending it to everyone! A very similar story (and with some surrounding controversy) is The Giver of Stars which I also read. Though also an excellent story, I give a slight edge to this one. What does a story need for you to really enjoy it? What are your boxes to tick?
photo by Terrie Purkey, Oregon (sorry, not Kentucky)