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.
Kim Michele Richardson ties together the blue people of Kentucky and the Pack Horse Librarian initiative to create unusual and interesting historical fiction.
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.
I first became aware of this book through reviews by Susan and Susanne.
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?
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I enjoyed this book too; it was a book club read for me last year (thank you for the mention!). Jojo Moyes’ “The Giver of Stars” came out shortly after and there was controversy that perhaps she’d “borrowed” the idea about packhorse librarians from Richardson. I didn’t know about the traveling librarians, nor about the “blue people,” and enjoyed learning about both.
I enjoyed your review as well. I heard about the controversy in the comments on your post but haven’t read the other book.
I loved this book. One of my favorites so far this year. I had never heard of either the pack horse librarians or the “blue” people. Took me on a rabbit hole of googling about both. I don’t think I would have had the courage these people did but what a gift for those receiving those books.
I Googled both as well. I don’t know if I could have gone into those remote places as they did.
I really enjoyed this book!! I found it fascinating and had heard of the pack horse librarians but not blue skinned people. I also googled and read extra material on the skin condition…..so fascinating to me especially as my dad’s side of family came here from France and down through Canada. Great review Barbara.
Thanks! I enjoyed Googling about both the librarians and the blue people, too.
I am completely unaware of other’s elements that make this plot so unique. I think I learn something every time I come here!
going to look into this one Thanks!
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