One of the things I value most about being a part of a reading group is that I’m exposed to books that I otherwise may have never stumbled upon. This next selection is one of those, so a big thank you to the member who chose this book as our September discussion selection. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a fascinating piece of historical fiction. Richardson has crafted at once a nostalgic and searing look at life in the Kentucky hills in the 1930’s in the latter part of the Great Depression. Kentucky is presented as thoroughly and as bravely as are the other characters in this book. She’s cruel, twisted, and astonishingly beautiful. The power she wielded against the fragile inhabitants that occupied her hills was both awe inspiring and frightening. One moment draining the life from the hill people through starvation and sickness only to cradle them to her bosom the next with a whisper of comfort. Sleep, child. The new day dawns soon if you can make it through the night.
I applaud the authenticity with which Richardson presents every fine-tuned detail of this story. Not that she didn’t take creative license, as she changed certain aspects of the historical record to suit the narrative. In the author’s note she points out these edits and pays homage to the real individuals whose lives in the mid-to-late 20th century were affected by the true events which inspired this book. One won’t get very far before giving in to the compulsion to set the book down for a bit to google “the blue people of Kentucky.” Your first instinct is to say that sounds like a big ole’ load of Kentucky manure. But you’re wrong, because the blue people were as real as you and I. Though the name Fugate was changed to Carter and a new heroine was presented, their story played out much the same way. They experienced the same vilification by the townsfolk and encountered an unimaginable amount of prejudice simply because of the color of their skin. It’s no surprise that one of the few people in this story to see clear to Cussy Mary’s heart is her fellow pack horse librarian, Queenie. Queenie is also vilified for her blackness, but she’s one of the only characters with the strength of character to seek friendship with someone unlike herself. Queenie was undoubtedly one of my favorite characters in a book teeming with richness and authenticity. She’s second only to Junia, whose ability to judge character is purely unrivaled. There wasn’t one superfluous individual among the pages of this book, even those that made me want to scream and slap them about. Lord amighty, there were plenty of those. (Looking at you, Harriett, you mean ole’ cow.)
Ok… sidenote about Harriett. As horrid as she was, Cussy Mary saw the value of education for all, and we get a glimpse of this in one of her interactions with Harriett. Sure, we realize that Harriett will probably always be a wretched beast of a woman, but we do feel a twinge of softness for her when Cussy discloses, “I loved the way Harriett loved her books. It changed her into something different, better.” This is, in a way, a foreshadowing of the future hope. That books and knowledge were the antidote for the ignorance that was the true plague of the hill folk. Though many of them detested her for reasons beyond her control, Cussy Mary was one of those hard working women and men who risked their safety and their comfort to bring knowledge to the people who were desperate and starving. She fought for them. She loved them fiercely despite their faults. She believed in a better tomorrow. And through her and the other librarians of the Works Progress Administration’s Packhorse librarian project, they’d find their hope and their will to live in the pages of books. Some would successfully navigate the starvation and desolation to live another day. Some would not. Also, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to hear the name Peter Pan without shedding a tear. “All children, except one, grow up.”
Plenty of children died in the hills of Kentucky with a gnawing hunger that burned in their bellies. That was one of the hardest aspects of this book. But if we didn’t see the harshness of their reality, we would never fully grasp the sheer resilience of these amazing people. Not just Cussy Mary. Jackson Lovett. R.C. Cole. Miss Loretta. Angeline. Elijah. Queenie. Oren Taft. One of the most beautiful moments in this book came during Cussy’s conversation with Mr. Taft, a simple hill man from one of the poorest communities on the mountain who walked miles to meet the book woman every Friday so he could bring knowledge to his people. He tells her that she reminds him of Picasso’s blue lady and asserts that God chose for her the color he’d reserved for the sky, one of his most beautiful creations. It’s a simple but wonderful connection, and it’s precisely what Cussy Mary needed to hear. Through Taft and these others we see the power of caring. Simple actions and words can hurt or they can save. We merely have to ask ourselves in life if we want to be one of the weak, mindless fools or if we want to be one of the brave souls that risk our own comfort for the sake of others. Only then does the world truly become a better place. History is full of these people but most don’t make it into the history books. However, we are where we are today thanks to the hard work and the perseverance of these fine people. And Kim Michele Richardson has done a remarkable job of paying homage to them.
5 stars for this richly beautiful novel.