The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek begins in 1936, in deep woods, high mountains Kentucky, and follows 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last blue-skinned girl. Called “Bluet” and often reviled for her skin, Cussy joins the Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky, riding her mule to distant and often dangerous farmsteads to bring books and magazines to the people, many of whom learn to read on the materials. Along the way, she encounters some of the best and worst of human nature, and the people slowly learn to accept Cussy as more than just blue-cursed, but as the only person that understands that these books are the only escape from their impoverished and hardened lives.
This book is a journey for Cussy as well, whose whole life has centered on the colour of her skin, making hard scrabble Kentucky life even harder. And yet, her and her pa have always had food on the table, a luxury that many of the families along her book route do not have. Cussy has been persecuted her entire life, and only now can learn to love herself for what she is – a fierce and brave librarian that brings a love of literacy wherever she goes.
“I leaned into the raw spring wind feeling the spirit of books bursting in my saddlebags – the life climbing into my bones.”
What I Loved :
- The historical aspect. I have to admit, when I first picked this book up, I didn’t read the full description, and at first thought the author arbitrarily created blue people as an extended allegory to racism in the US. Much to my surprise and chagrin, I realized that these people actually existed. Upon realizing that this was true, I began to read this with a much more critical, historical eye, and this made me love it all the more. Cussy’s story of being a mounted librarian, while maybe not completely accurate, comes directly from FDR’s literacy program, and the mounted librarians existed for almost a decade in this time. Even if Cussy herself wasn’t real, these brave women (and a couple of men!) are wonderfully honoured in this book.
- The Writing. Richardson is, simply put, a great writer. She makes you engaged with the characters, the harshly unforgiving, but still beautiful Kentucky Appalachians, and the plight of these people whose only crime was being born poor.
“That there was medicine for Henry and all the Henrys out there, for the hunger and hungry, didn’t seem right. Not much of the pox or influenza sickness in Kentucky as much as there was the hunger disease right now. That there were stores full of the cure for hunger kept me awake with that special kind of anger that comes from helplessness.”
What I Didn’t Love:
- Triggers. I am not normally the kind of reader that gets affected by violence, rape, etc, but Cussy is violated extremely early in the book, and I honestly almost put it down after that. This is partially due to the violence in the scene itself, and partially due to the fact that I felt it unnecessary. The author does not really use her trauma in any meaningful way later in the book, and the only thing it did do was set a scene of what marriage looked like in rural regions in the 1930s and the toll it took on women. In other places, there is a great deal of suffering, including an attempted rape, a suicide, and children dying of hunger. While these things all existed and should be acknowledged, I felt that it took me a little away from the beauty of the book and the core premise of the love of reading.
- The Pacing. Another big deterrent to reading this book was that the first 11 or so pages were just slow and did not add a lot of movement to the plot except to show the town, the mountains, and various characters that play bigger roles later. the prose was beautiful and Cussy has a strong voice, but getting through the first part of the book was rough at times.
I genuinely liked this book, and found it to be one of the most interesting and informative things I have read this year so far. While it has some pacing issues and hard scenes to get through, it is overall a worthy read and felt extremely relevant given today’s racially divided rhetoric. I highly recommend for people who love books about books and readers, are interested in historical fiction, or need a good cry. 3.5 waves out of 5, raised to 4 specifically for the subject matter!