In Kim Michele Richardson’s novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Cussy Mary Carter was one of the Pack Horse Librarians. A Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative by FDR during the Depression employed librarians to bring books to people in the Appalachian mountains. Books were donated, and the Pack Horse Librarians sorted, distributed them, and made scrapbooks for residents which included recipes and tips. The librarians, mostly women, rode hundreds of miles.
Many of the residents were eager for books and magazines. Some were suspicious.
Cussy Mary had to fight more than the usual amount of suspicion and superstition because she was colored: blue.
A family line in Kentucky produced people with a blue tint to their skin due to a recessive gene, though the cause wasn’t known at the time. Some people treated the “blues” like anyone else, but negative reactions ranged from a desire to keep a distance to fear of disease to superstitions to hatred. “Blues” were included in “No coloreds allowed” signs and laws.
The story begins with Cussy Mary’s father trying to arrange courtship for her, though she doesn’t want to be married. He has worked in the mines all his life, and his lungs are affected. He wants to make sure Mary is provided for before he dies. But no one is interested until he offers the deed to his land. A disastrous wedding night leaves Mary a widow.
We follow along with Mary on her travels, meet her patrons, hear their stories, see her interactions with townspeople, encounter the dangers on the trail.
The town doctor has always wanted to take blood samples and study Mary and her father, but they’ve resisted—until the father has a secret he needs the doctor to keep. The only way the doctor will agree is if Mary’s dad will let him take her to the hospital in Lexington for tests. Against Mary’s will, she’s subjected to all kinds of indignities. When the doctor finds a temporary “cure” for Mary’s blue skin, she enjoys being white at first. But the side effects and the lack of change in how people treat her leave her wondering if the change is worth it. The author says in her notes that the study and treatment she described didn’t actually occur until about thirty years later.
Mary’s courage and determination shine throughout. She remembered being read to by her mother, who passed away. That hunger for learning stayed with Mary, and she wants to help those with the same hunger.
There is a smattering of bad words, and Mary’s wedding night is told with more detail than I’d like.
But otherwise, this was a fascinating story.
I listened to the audiobook, which I was pleased to get for free–it was included with either my Audible subscription or Amazon Prime, I forget which. Katie Schorr did a wonderful job with the narration. I checked out the book from the library to read back matter not included with the audiobook, including a nice interview with the author.
Had you heard of blue people or the Pack Horse Librarians? Would you be willing to brave mountainous trails in the back woods on a mule to get books to people?