I found this book purely by accident.
Intrigued by the long reserve list on multiple digital library sites, coupled with book woman in the title, I wanted to see what all the interest was about. I didn’t read anything about it in advance so I had no idea what the story was about and just jumped right in when my turn came for a download.
The novel is not great fiction in terms of a plot arc or character development. There are definitely very good and very bad actors with not much room for nuance. But the history is important for us to know. I was totally unfamiliar with the facts of this part of Kentucky history and was happy to learn it through this work of fiction. The setting is very well described and the dialogue feels authentic. At first, it might be hard to find the rhythm of the conversation of the Kentucky hill people but after a bit, it flows.
Book Woman is set in the 1930s in Troublesome Creek, Eastern Kentucky. The WPA set up a program called the Pack Horse Library to deliver library books, newspapers, magazines, and scrapbooks across very dangerous terrain in Appalachia. This program allowed unmarried women to ride on horseback (or mule in this story) to make the deliveries. *(More details about it at the end of blog).
Our protagonist, Cussy Mary Carter, a coal miner’s daughter, was one such librarian. What made Cussy different is that she was blue-skinned. Yes. You read that correctly. Cussy and a line of her relatives had blue skin. I had never known that there were people with skin light as pale baby blue to dark as cobalt.
Nobody at the time knew why they were blue. And not all of the family line were blue, some were white.** But the ones who were, suffered the discrimination of all other peoples of color. Cussy was able to get her library job by sending her application directly to headquarters knowing full well had she submitted locally, she would have been turned away as a person of color.
Cussy Mary, nicknamed Bluet, was taught to read by her mother and had a great love of books. Despite her struggles, and there are many, she is a kind and loving young girl, giving and unselfish beyond reason. She has seen and experienced more hardship and tragedy than any one person should have to. Her mother is dead and she does her best to care for her father who is given the worst mining jobs because as a blue, his life is worth less. They barely subsist yet, there is an optimism in her.
The language is direct. It could break your heart or make you want to break things
My heart pained for Mama and for my ugly color….the hardness of the land,
the shame weighing down my shoulders. It was always there inside. The
disgrace had fixed itself to my soul like it had life, the rawness, black and
heavy like a lump of Kentucky coal that would find its dirty weigh into our home.
The author, Kim Michele Richardson, a native Kentuckian is a child advocate for the prevention of abuse and domestic violence. Her first book, a memoir, The Unbreakable Child, is set in an orphan asylum in Kentucky. She’s clearly made decisions to throw as many hot button issues as she could at these characters. I think she might have made some choices. At some points, I truly felt on overload and wanted to scream enough, we get it. We read through a litany of racism, marital rape, suicide, medical testing, starvation, preventable illnesses, corporate greed, death. You name it, it’s in there. No real spoilers. I’m not telling when, to whom, or how.
And yet, you still wait for that happy ending… Cussy more than deserves it. She is a formidable character and you can’t help but love her. You want her to stop struggling. You want her to thrive. You can imagine a good future for her because despite everything, you believe she can imagine it for herself. Maybe the inscription is really meant for her:
The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet hope for the future of man.” T. S. Eliot
Books have opened up her life and she spreads that to the people around her, no matter how downtrodden or mean they are. She believes in their power. If they give her hope in her life, think what they can do for us!
The historical part of the story is fascinating— both about the blue people of Kentucky and the library project.
*The Pack Horse Libraries was another of the New Deal Works Progress Administration Programs begun during the Depression. There were around thirty different pack horse libraries who served around 100,000 different people in the Appalachian mountain region.
The libraries also served around 155 schools in these counties. Community members donated books and provided facilities to store them along with other supplies needed by the librarians. Each local pack horse library had a clerk, or head librarian, who handled various library duties and four to ten book carriers who delivered books to mountain schools and homesteads on horses and mules.
Book women were hired by the WPA and worked for around $28 a month. For some families, this was their only source of income.
**The Fugates, commonly known as the “Blue People of Kentucky“, are notable for having been carriers of a genetic trait that led to the disease methemoglobinemia, which gives sufferers blue-tinged skin.The first Fugate in the United States was a French orphan, who settled in Troublesome Creek in the hills of eastern Kentucky in 1820. He married a woman who was said to be as pale and white as the mountain laurel that blooms every spring around the creek hollows.
By some highly unlikely odds, both possessed a recessive gene. Four of their seven children were born with blue skin. They carried a rare hereditary blood disorder that causes excessive levels of methemoglobin in their blood. This is a nonfunctional blue version of the healthy red hemoglobin protein that carries oxygen. In most Caucasians, the red hemoglobin of the blood shows through their skin giving it a pink tint.
For the Fugate family, the excessive amount of blue methemoglobin in their blood turned their skin color blue. Counterintuitively, the best chemical for activating the body’s process of turning methemoglobin to hemoglobin is methylene blue dye. It works immediately in turning skin white and pills can keep it going. This wasn’t discovered until the 1960s but for the purposes of the novel was pushed ahead a generation.
If you are interested in more about this, there is a short interview with Isla Morley about the blue mountain people from the research she did for her book, The Last Blue ( Simon and Schuster, 2020). I have not read her book but it’s an interesting interview. https://youtu.be/7eVT4pO6vhs