REVIEW: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
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 Appalachias 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.
Dear Ms. Richardson,
Of course I couldn’t resist looking into a blurb with a “Book” title especially if it’s also about librarians. I will admit to researching the blue-skinned people because honestly I’d never heard of them. A woman with a name like “Cussy” also sounded as if she’d be tough as leather and difficult to beat. Well, she is but her name didn’t have quite the origin I initially thought it would.
Cussy Mary is a Carter – one of the “Blue” Carters – and for that she’s endured a lifetime of scorn and racism. With her mother dead of the influenza and her coal miner pa wracked with bad health, he’s determined to see her married to have a man to look after her. Refusing to listen to her pleas to stay home, look after him, and that with her librarian job she can support herself, pa arranges for several men to court Cussy. Despite the lure of a sizable dowry, only one is willing to marry her and that turns out to be a disaster.
Back home and back at work after she heals, Cussy takes the one thing she got from her (short term) abusive husband – a mule Cussy names Junia – and resumes her rounds to the hill people of Kentucky whose thirst for books is as great as their hunger for food. Reading about the dirt poor but proud people I was reminded of a documentary I’ve mentioned here before that covered an early 1970s miner strike in Kentucky. The movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” about Loretta Lynn’s childhood, makes her home almost appear luxurious compared to the characters here.
Cussy is fiercely proud of the work she does and the job she earned despite the opposition of the local head of the program. Cussy’s fellow pack horse librarians accept her as do most of the people on her route – though a few won’t speak to her. The main roadblocks Cussy runs into are those too proud to accept what they see as a government handout. A new patron on her route intrigues her and soon they’re exchanging personal books and talking a little about what they like about them.
But a virulent “preacher” has his eye on Cussy, determined to cleanse her of her sin of being blue-skinned. Will Cussy be able to keep away from him and remain quiet in the face of the prejudice that has hounded her kin?
Cussy is all I wanted in a heroine and more. She loves books and reading and is determined to bring that joy to the people around her. For some of her patrons, she will brave treacherous switchback trails, sit and read to those losing their sight, ride miles each week, kept an eye open for wildcats and snakes on her routes, and scour the donations the librarians receive looking for items her patrons request or she thinks they might enjoy. The historical details put me straight into the time period and were worked into the story instead of just there to show research.
She remains strong in the face of those who cut her with words or scorn her with glances. She also wonders about the outside world and marvels at the magazine images showing people with enough to eat as well as beautiful clothes and lifestyles. After working all day she’ll haul water, cook, and scrub. When she has a chance to get medicine and food, her first thought is of others who need it more than she does.
Cussy goes through a lot but it all seems realistic and organic. I grinned when I realized who was trying to court her and was happy when he finally won her over. Then I noticed the page count left and wondered what would happen next. Well, a lot of misery and loss. I did not see the final villain or conflict coming though it makes sense given the laws and attitudes of the day. The last little bit of the story did seem like a pile-on of woe – I believe I might have wondered “what next??” and I would have liked a less abrupt epilogue but I enjoyed my time with tough Cussy and was delighted for her HEA. Librarians rock. B
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