In 1935, the federal Works Progress Administration established a library outreach
project in the Appalachian mountain region to get more books into the hands of the people. Until 1943, librarians on horses traveled the mountains to take and retrieve books to patrons living in the remote areas not serviced by a library. Kentucky was home to one of the earliest pack horse library programs with the first established in 1934 in Leslie County and others coming shortly thereafter in Harlan, Clay, Whitley, Jackson, Owsley and Lee counties. Over the course of eight years, the Pack Horse Librarians project reached 1.5 million Kentuckians and enabled nearly 1,000 women to support themselves and their families in 48 Kentucky counties.
Cussy Mary Carter is “the” book woman of the title in native Kentuckian Kim Michele Richardson’s novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. The year is 1936, and Cussy Mary’s widowed father hopes it’s “the year his only daughter, nineteen-year-old Cussy Mary Carter, would get herself hitched and quit her job with the Pack Horse Library Project.” Cussy has other ideas.
“Pa, I have me a good job making us twenty-eight dollars a month delivering books to folks who’s needing the book learning in these hills. . . . It’s decent money — ”
“Where’s your decency? Some of the womenfolk are complaining you’re carrying dirty books up them rocks.”
“Weren’t true. It’s called literature and it’s proper enough.” I tried to explain like so many times before. “Robinson Crusoe, and Dickens, and the likes, and lots of Popular Mechanics and Women’s Home Companion even. Pamphlets with tips on fixing things busted. Patterns for sewing. Cooking and cleaning. Making a dollar stretch. Important things, Pa. Respectable — ”
“Airish. It ain’t respectable for a female to be riding these rough hills, behaving like a man,” he said, a harshness rumbling his voice.
“It helps educate folks and their young’uns.”
According to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Cussy Mary made her own booklets for distribution by combining pages from newspapers and worn magazines. Joan Vannorsdale’s article, “The Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky,” published in Blue Ridge Country adds historical perspective to the fictional account by Kim Michele Richardson. “The scrapbooks were compiled by pack horse librarians during weekly report gatherings at county library headquarters, and included many contributions from library patrons along their routes. In 1940, Vance writes, 2,653 scrapbooks were circulated among Pack Horse Library patrons. ‘They became important cultural artifacts that offer a window into the lives and interests of readers in the Depression-era Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky,’ Vance asserts.” https://blueridgecountry.com/newsstand/magazine/pack-horse-librarians-eastern-kentucky/
But Richardson’s book woman has more than her share of trouble. Her mother has died, her father’s sick from working in the coal mines, she rides the roughest roads in the state on a recalcitrant mule facing harassment and sexual assault in the process. Not only that, Cussy Mary is one of Kentucky’s famous “blue people.”
I could barely meet someone’s eyes for fear my color would betray my sensibilities. A mere blush, a burst of joy or anger, or sudden startle, would crawl across my skin, deepening, changing my softer appearance to a ripened blueberry hue, sending the other person scurrying. . . . A girl who could turn as blue as the familiar bluet damselfly skimming Kentucky creek bed, the old mountain doctor had once puzzled and then promptly nicknamed me Bluet.
“A rare but very noticeable condition of abnormal hemoglobin affects the “blue people of Troublesome Creek”. Seven generations ago, in 1820, a French orphan named Martin Fugate who settled in this area of Kentucky brought in an autosomal recessive gene that causes methemoglobinemia. Martin’s mutation was in the CYP5R3 gene, which encodes an enzyme (cytochrome b5 methemoglobin reductase) that normally catalyzes a reaction that converts a type of hemoglobin with poor oxygen affinity, methemoglobin, back into normal hemoglobin by adding an electron. Martin was a heterozygote but still slightly bluish. His wife, Elizabeth Smith, was also a carrier for this very rare disease, and four of their seven children were blue. After extensive inbreeding in the isolated community—their son married his aunt, for example—a large pedigree of “blue people” of both sexes arose. https://blogs.plos.org/dnascience/2016/09/22/finding-the-famous-painting-of-the-blue-people-of-kentucky/
So Cussy Mary is also blue. Alas, poor girl. She draws the attention, naturally, of the local doctor who wants to take her to Lexington to study and she agrees based on his promise of food. The doctor believes he has discovered the problem as well as the solution to the color and Cussy Mary sees hope for herself at last. She envisions a life where she can be accepted, maybe even married. With her newly-pale skin, Cussy Mary decides to attend the community’s Independence Day celebrations but finds that her father’s prediction is true: “Those that can’t see past a folk’s skin color have a hard difference in them. There’s a fire in that difference. And when they see you, they’ll still see a Blue.”
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is an outstanding work of historical fiction rooted in the reality of living in the hollers of Appalachia during the deepest days of the Depression. It’s also a meditation on the discrimination that unfortunately runs as rampant in our time as it did in the 1930s: discrimination on the basis of skin color and social class, lack of educational resources, and the scarcity of wholesome food.
Kim Michele Richardson’s website has it’s own “scrapbook” which includes a reading group guide, recipes from the novel, recipes from actual book women, and household tips. One of the recipes is for the Scripture Cake that Cussy Mary takes to the Fourth of July celebration.
There’s also a book trailer and interview with Ms. Richardson.
From some research, I’ve learned that “old-time music,” is the term for the Appalachian music of the 1920s and 1930s. It’s primarily the type of music performed by a string band and is Scotch-Irish influenced. Here’s a couple of videos of some performances: https://youtu.be/cVMi3MH0uRU, https://youtu.be/STzoTmbemvA.
I follow Ms. Richardson on twitter and noticed that she reported a conversation with a “big producer” in Hollywood. She told him she had to have Kaitlyn Dever for Cussy Mary. I don’t know whether the rights have been sold or not. I can see Kaitlyn Dever, but I can also see Julia Garner from Ozark. For fun, I’m going to populate this with only Kentucky-born actors.
Pa Michael Shannon
Jackson Lovett Josh Hutcherson
Mr. Frazier Johnny Depp — he’d have fun with this role
So enjoy reading The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek either with your book club or on your own!
And don’t forget that my debut novel, After the Race, is available now! You can order from rabbithousepress.com or Amazon, or buy it from Joseph-Beth booksellers. If your local book store doesn’t have it in stock, ask them to carry After the Race!