A few pages into reading The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, I had to Google “blue-skinned people of Kentucky”. The main character of this book, Cussy Carter, is a “blue” and it’s something I was unfamiliar with. The story is set in the midst of The Great Depression in the 1930s. A small group of Appalachian hill people whose skin was tinted blue lived in remote communities. Their condition was caused by a rare genetic mutation now known as methemoglobinemia which meant their blood lacked oxygen. Their skin appeared blue and their blood was brown. The condition came to America through Martin Fugate, a French orphan who immigrated to Kentucky in 1820.
Blues in 1930s Kentucky were considered even lower on the social scale than “coloureds”. They were feared and shunned by their neighbours and tended to live isolated lives in coal mining communities deep in the “hollers” of the mountains. They weren’t even allowed to attend church in the strongly God-fearing communities where they lived. Living conditions for hill people and miners were always difficult but particularly during the depression. Starvation was rampant and infant mortality rates were high as mothers were malnourished and often ill.
Cussy Carter lives with her widowed miner father in a remote cabin he built. He was determined to get her married off but finding a husband for a ‘blue’ was nearly impossible. In order to help support her and her father, nineteen-year-old Cussy secures a job as a traveling librarian. President Roosevelt’s New Deal included a government-supported program that paid women and some men to deliver books, magazines, and periodicals to remote hill families, many of whom were illiterate and relied on their barely schooled children to read to them. The Pack Horse Library Project ran from 1935 to 1943. The book women were paid $28.00 a month and were expected to provide their own mount. Nearly one thousand women provided services to 600,000 remote residents in eastern Kentucky.
The “Book Women” as they were known, traveled their routes on horseback, donkey or mules. Out-of-date and worn-out publications from big-city libraries were donated to rural drop-off locations once a week and the book women loaded up their saddlebags to distribute them. Enduring harsh weather and faced with heart-breaking deprivation, these women were often the only contact many hill people had with the outside world.
Cussy is a fictional composite of these amazing women but is different because of her colour. Her first, disastrous marriage is short-lived and she continues her work despite prejudice and challenging living conditions. The romantic element introduced into the story by the author is predictable—until it’s not. Toward the end I thought the story was leaning a bit too far toward a Harlequin-type love story, then the author throws in a sobering surprise.
As a confirmed book lover, I particularly enjoyed the glorification of books and reading expressed in this novel. The author’s introduction of the blue people into the plotline informed me of a genetic condition and group of people I previously had no awareness of. The settings for the story are real places and events are based on historical fact. Pie dances were arranged for young men to sample home-made pies baked by young women looking for a husband. Courting candles were lit on front porches to make suitors aware that there was an available potential wife living there. Scary customs by today’s standards but normal social activities practiced in the Appalachians.
Some readers may find The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek slow at times but I enjoyed reading about the daily lifestyle and challenges faced by Appalachian hill people during The Depression. The added dimension of the blue people and the rampant discrimination against them was a revelation I appreciated learning about. The characters in the story speak in the local vernacular which enhances our ability to slip into their rhythms and psychology. The author’s notes at the end of the book and photos of real-life book women enriched the reading experience. I quite enjoyed this book and it’s particularly nice to have a good book when we’re confined to quarters.
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