Thursday, September 15, 2022

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson (author), Katie Schorr (narrator)

Blackstone Publishing, ISBN 9781538522035, May 2019

Content Warnings: domestic violence, sexual assault, bigotry

The content warnings are things that made this a rough read for me, and more than once nearly stopped me finishing it. Some readers may conclude I'm a bit oversensitive, given there's no really gruesome detail, but truly, for me, emotionally it was rough.

However, Cussy Mary Carter is a wonderful character, and the storytelling and scene-setting is excellent. In 1936 Appalachia, in the hill country of Kentucky, Cussy Mary is the nineteen-year-old daughter of a hardworking, widowed coal minter, Elijah Carter. It's the depths of the Great Depression, and to help make ends meet, Cussy Mary has gotten a job in the WPA's packhorse librarian project. It's designed to provide jobs for women, and books to the isolated communities and homesteads in the hills. The Carters face an additional challenge most of their neighbors don't, though. They're blue. Blue-skinned descendants of an immigrant from France in the 1820s, and to many of their neighbors, they're just another variety of "colored," with all the challenges that brings in 1930s America.

The Carters are based on the very real Fugate family, and their blue coloring was the result of a genetic oddity giving them a deficiency of an enzyme in the blood. 

Elijah Carter, suffering from black lung disease as so many coal miners did, is determined to give his daughter long-term security by getting her married, whether she wants to or not. Some of Cussy Mary's challenges, and worst experiences, come directly from this entirely well-intentioned determination to marry her off to someone, anyone, so that she won't be alone when he dies.

She pursues her packhorse librarian job with dedication, riding her cantankerous mule, Junia, who has a well-earned hatred of men and becomes very protective of Cussy Mary. She loves her patrons, and finding the right books and magazines to bring them, and most of them are happy to see her. Some, though, accept the books, but won't let the blue person in their houses. And when she goes into the nearby town of Troublesome Creek, she's treated with prejudice even by some of her fellow librarians. One of her few friends is Queenie, the only black packhorse librarian operating out of their library center.

Along the way, we see the hardships of 1930s Appalachia, with hunger and real starvation ever-present. Coal mining is deadly dangerous, and black lung disease is one of the slower ways it can kill the miners. The coal miners are trying to organize a union, and that brings real danger, as the company responds with violence. Cussy Mary is legitimately frightened when her father goes to secret union meetings. He worries about her riding her packhorse librarian route, with no roads, few paths, and the recent death of a librarian when her horse stumbled on a steep trail.

Throughout the story, we see small kindnesses and small cruelties, and some greater cruelties. The local doctor is fascinated by the Carters' condition, and determined to study it and them. He's on the one hand frankly objectifying about them in ways both Elijah and Cussy Mary find off-putting, and on the other hand, he's genuinely and spontaneously angry when people treat Cussy Mary as less than human, or diseased and dangerous. One review said he has no bedside manner, which is true, and no compassion, which I find untrue.

It's a fascinating and emotional story. The author, in her afterword, talks about the Fugates, and about the research that identified the cause of their blue color--which for story-telling purposes she has the doctor doing research that in reality happened in the 1960s, not the 1930s.

There's a positive outcome to the story, but as I said, it was an emotionally rough read for me, and there are painful twists right up to the end--all grounded in the real history of the time and place.


I bought this audiobook.

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