Review| The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Book Review The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele RichardsonA good friend of mine recently loaned me her copy of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, and I read it in about a day. This novel will appeal to fans of historical fiction, offering a peek into a unique pocket of U.S. history; Depression-era Kentucky. I found the story compelling, and fast moving. Most excitingly, it touched upon history I knew little about; specifically the blue people of Kentucky (people whose skin appeared blue due to an undiagnosed, hereditary disorder, affecting the amount of methemoglobin and oxygen in their blood).

During the Great Depression, when President Roosevelt sought to pull the U.S. out of poverty with his New Deal, the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project was started under the Works Progress Administration. Employing mainly women capable of providing their own transportation, this program sent librarians into rural Kentucky, including remote routes into the Appalachian mountains. The librarians delivered books of good moral integrity, and even created their own scrapbooks of recipes and housekeeping tips to bolster their stock of reading materials. The program improved literacy in rural areas, and gave impoverished households a brief respite from their troubles.

These were hard times: families dying of starvation, extremely harsh labor conditions in Kentucky mining communities, and multitudinous racial injustices. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek follows the life of Cussy Mary, a pack horse librarian, and one of a handful of surviving Kentuckians with blue skin. Cussy’s father works tirelessly for the mines, and wants nothing more than to marry his daughter off to someone who can provide for her. Due to her blue skin color, Cussy is considered a “colored” woman, and it’s difficult to find a suitor who will have her. Cussy wishes to remain unwed so that she can continue with her important work of delivering books. The novel follows Cussy through all the trials and tribulations of being a Depression-era woman, with blue skin, in a poverty-stricken community, delivering books across dangerous terrain.

This book had all the necessary elements of great historical fiction. Richardson did an excellent job balancing the historical details while maintaining a believable, relatable, fictional narrative. The story is told in first-person, and Cussy’s voice is very strong:

The president had added the Works Progress Administration last year to put females to work and bring literature and art into the Kaintuck man’s life. For many mountainfolk, all of us around here, it was our first taste of what a library could give, a taste to be savored – one that left behind a craving for more.

I felt like I could hear Cussy’s voice in my head, almost as though I were listening to an audio book, rather than reading a paperback. Additionally, the secondary characters all felt very realistic, and richly woven – from patrons of the library down to Cussy’s faithful mule, Junia:

Junia wasn’t skittish like my old horse or stick-legged like the donkey. She wouldn’t dither over a problem none, but she’d defend and battle if it came down to it. Folks said a good trail mule was far better than a horse, that riding a mule was just as good as packing a shotgun across these dangerous hills.

Come to think of it, Junia the mule might be my favorite character in the book. Of course, I’m a sucker for animals. In every story, I tend to care more for the welfare of animals than I do humans.

This was an absorbing fictional take on a fascinating history. Although, I feel compelled to warn readers that because of the trying times, sad things happen to some of the characters. Some of the plot points are difficult to read. I don’t want to give anything away, but I always feel compelled to mention (when it’s called for) that victims of sexual assault may find this book triggering. Fortunately, the author doesn’t dwell overly long on the more difficult-to-read aspects of the story. Furthermore, the hard-to-read scenes push the plot forward. There is a purpose for their inclusion in the book. It’s definitely worth reading.

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