Skip to main content

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek


The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

Books can save lives. That’s the lesson of Kim Michele Richardson’s latest novel, THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK, a fascinating slice of historical fiction inspired by two little-known stories from America’s past: the Blue Fugates of Kentucky and the WPA Pack Horse Library Project.

Nineteen-year-old Cussy Mary Carter lives with her widowed coal miner father in the hills of rural Kentucky. It’s the late 1930s, and “the country’s despair [has] dug its roots into Kentucky and spread like ugly knotweed, choking spirits, strangling life.” Miners are little better than serfs, education is a haphazard afterthought for most, and starvation is always lurking at the door.

As a single woman with a job, Cussy Mary is better off financially than many, but worse off in other ways. She’s the last of the Blue People of Kentucky, a member of a mysterious clan that tends to produce children with blue-tinged skin. Over the years, the Blues have been shunned, mocked as inbreds (they’re not), and forced to retreat “deeper into the hills to escape the ridicule.” (The Blues of Richardson’s book are inspired by the real-life Blue Fugates of Kentucky, who had a rare condition called methemoglobinemia that affected the color of their skin.)

"...a stirring testament to the crucial role that books can play in easing the pain of poverty and letting people imagine a different, more hopeful future."

Being mocked because of her color hurts, but the real fear for Cussy Mary --- or Bluet, as she’s also known --- is violence, especially from a preacher who wants to “chase the devils” out of “sinners” like her. His past baptisms of others marked by “wickedness” --- like an albino and a set of triplets --- have ended in death.

Despite her difficult life, Cussy Mary takes solace and pride in her job as a pack horse librarian. She’s been hired as part of a Works Progress Administration effort to bring books to the isolated hollers of Appalachia, where there are “folks who are hungry for the learning.” Nearly every day, she rides out on a stubborn old mule named Junia to visit people like Angeline, a poor, pregnant woman caring for an injured husband, and Winnie Parker, who relies on her deliveries to help teach a ragtag group of children in a one-room schoolhouse. Her work is vital in the mountain communities she visits, where people rely on her to teach them their letters, bring news from the outside world, and even deliver much-needed food. It also gives her a sense of purpose and belonging in a world where she’s always been treated as an outsider.

Richardson’s meticulously researched novel shines a light on a part of American history that will be unfamiliar to many readers. Mingling the true stories of the Blue Fugates and the Pack Horse Library Project yields a rich, emotionally resonant narrative that highlights both the pernicious effects of prejudice and the transformative power of education. In Cussy Mary, she has created a steadfast and mettlesome heroine, but one who still suffers from relatable moments of loneliness and self-doubt.

Richardson doesn’t pull punches when it comes to describing the hardscrabble lives of the hill people. THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK opens with an arresting scene in which Cussy Mary discovers a dead body swinging from a tree. Later, characters endure marital rape, children suffer from pellagra, and women die in childbirth. Yet moments of utter despair are contrasted with uplifting episodes of hope and kindness, like when Queenie, the area’s sole African-American librarian, gets a job at the free library in Philadelphia, or when a boy gives Cussy Mary a gift of a single Lifesaver to thank her for bringing him books.

Eventually, a local doctor identifies a possible “cure” for Cussy Mary’s blueness. But she soon discovers that while she might be able to change the color of her skin, it comes at a steep price. Plus, some in Troublesome Creek won’t be so quick to forget her past, and as she embarks on a tentative romance, their long-standing prejudice threatens her happiness.

Richardson has a native’s feel for the landscape and language of eastern Kentucky. She lovingly describes the hills and hollers that Cussy Mary and those around her call home, while judiciously deploying the rich and distinct Appalachian dialect, where a man “totes his pride in a beggar’s cup,” and a snobbish, cruel woman is an “ol’ stinky polecat.” The wealth of historical detail adds to the sense of authenticity, though at times the story is a bit thin. Cussy Mary’s relationship with an open-minded outsider never feels fully developed, and the book’s resolution is abrupt. Yet Richardson’s latest effort is nonetheless a stirring testament to the crucial role that books can play in easing the pain of poverty and letting people imagine a different, more hopeful future.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on May 10, 2019

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
by Kim Michele Richardson