Happy Friday, Readers! The book I’m reviewing today has some parts that are very difficult to read due to the content, but I enjoyed learning about the Pack Horse Librarians very much. There really is a lot to unpack with this one.
About the Book
Author: Kim Michelle Richardson
Genre: Historical Fiction, 1930s Kentucky (USA)
Synopsis: In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky.
Along her dangerous route, Cussy, known to the mountain folk as Bluet, confronts those suspicious of her damselfly-blue skin and the government’s new book program. She befriends hardscrabble and complex fellow Kentuckians, and is fiercely determined to bring comfort and joy, instill literacy, and give to those who have nothing, a bookly respite, a fleeting retreat to faraway lands.
Content Warning: This book contains a fairly significant amount of mature content, including disturbing instances mostly off-screen of rape, death from childbirth complications, medical malpractice, and suicide. The language is accordingly strong.
Until a few weeks ago, I had no idea that the Pack Horse Librarian Projects was a part of the New Deal or that there were Blue people in Kentucky in the 1930s. Both of these are subjects that I learned about initially through other sources, but are brought together in The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek so that the entire work created a learning experience.
Most of the historical fiction that I read tends towards escapism, and generally has a healthy dose of (clean) romance. This book, however, is anything but escapist and only has a hint of romance toward the end. Instead, it is an abrasive and eye-opening look at a difficult time and place in American history, which I am surprised I knew almost nothing about. Racism is featured front and center, and written in such a way that I was first (appropriately) shocked and insulted for the protagonist, and then forced to take a hard look at why this instance of racism felt particularly unexpected and heinous. Why was I surprised that the Blue people faced injustice, and by extension, why am I not always surprised when others do? It’s quality food for thought.
My favorite aspect of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is the way that Cussy Mary relates to her patrons, even to the extent that she is protective and territorial about them. As a library employee myself, I relate to her joy at people finding books that they love, children asking for their favorite book time and time again, and her earnest desire to convince those who are unsure about the position of the library that the books and services are worthwhile and beneficial. Of course, nearly everything is different about the way the Pack Horse Librarians conducted library service and the way that we do today. Her tenacity and devotion to the people on her book route are overwhelmingly admirable.
A content warning before I unintentionally convince you that this book is entirely heartwarming: the amount of abuse in this book is repulsive. There are so many deplorable situations, gory details, and sickening immorality. The heartening moments of joy and peace are few and far between. If this is true to life, which I have every reason to believe that it largely is, then the lives of the Blue people of Kentucky were terrible. Poverty of a scale that I can barely comprehend defines the everyday lives of the characters. I expected to find mountain life in the 1930s reminiscent to prairie life in the late-1800s, but nothing familiar appeared. The land does very little to support human life, and even the people around do little to help one another – until they jump to the other extreme and give everything in their lives for each other. The bottom line is that there is some very gruesome content here, and it is a wonder that anyone lived long at all. I think that this is the expected result, that everything has the effect that the author intended, but that does not make it any easier to read.
As one final note, I am intrigued by the fact that community-made scrapbooks were among the most popular materials requested from the library service. These scrapbooks contained recipes, clothes patterns, and all kinds of information that people need to live secluded in the hills. People in the community would give their “Book Woman” (the librarian who delivered their books) something useful to put into the scrapbook, and they were passed around just like the rest of the books and magazines. They contain so much raw culture, and I would love to look at one.
Ultimately, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek has a lot of passages that are difficult to read, but it conveys so much information that I had no idea I did not know. This hole in my knowledge caught me off guard, as did the nagging implications of my own reaction to the abuse and injustice faced by the Blue people. I am thankful for the eye-opening nature of this book, and despite the amount of un-enjoyable content, I’m giving The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek four stars.
Is there a book that you read are thankful you read because of the way it stirred you to think more deeply about important things, even if the story itself is not enjoyable to read?
Until the next chapter,