- The Good: Easy-to-devour historical fiction about a blue-skinned librarian in rural Appalachia
- The Bad: Occasionally too slow and quiet; some strong dialect; the romance a little too good to be true
- The Literary: Who doesn’t love reading about a librarian who loves reading and brings books, magazines, newspapers, and literacy to the rural poor? Or realizing Brave New World was several years old by the late 1930’s.
Deep in the Kentucky Appalachian woods, blue-skinned Cussy Carter is the last of her clan of mysteriously blue-skinned relatives. She takes care of her Pa, a coal miner, and rides her mule across of the hills to visit the impoverished residents as a librarian in the Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky. Cussy works against deep-seated racism to share the gift of literacy in 1936 Troublesome Creek.
I love that this novel is inspired by and honors true events with which I was unfamiliar. First, the blue-skinned people of Kentucky really were descended from Martin Fugate and Elizabeth Smith, who settled near Hazard, Kentucky around 1800, and both passed on to their children a recessive gene that lead to methemoglobinemia, which is essentially chronic oxygen deprivation. Second, the Kentucky Pack Horse library project employed around 200 librarians who delivered books to remote regions in the Appalachian Mountains between 1935 and 1943 as part of the Works Progress Administration.
Cussy is the star of the story, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a quiet, resilient, and likable protagonist. No stranger to tragedy, we enter the story when her father wants to marry 19-year-old Cussy off so she’ll be taken care of if something happens to him, but her intended is a wife-beating drunk and the new marriage doesn’t last long. Settling for spinsterhood, Cussy revels in the opportunity to bring comfort and joy, whether through books and literacy, or food and medicine, to the rural inhabitants of the Kentucky hills.
She and her father face racism in many forms as their lives are deemed less worthy than their white-skinned companions. When the local doctor bribes them with his secrecy about the death of a white man on their property, Cussy agrees to let the doctor examine her. After blood tests confirm his suspicions about her disease, Cussy wrestles with the desire to be normal as the treatment makes her sick.
With a touch of romance, a sweet but over-protective mule, and references to literary greats, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creeks is one of the most quietly optimistic books I’ve read in a long time. Cussy’s strength in the face of death, rape, and racism is something to behold and leaves me with a warm nostalgia. Highly recommended!