People often quote the magic of books and talk about their ability to transport one around the globe or to another world. Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek preaches the importance of such a power. Set in the hollers of Depression-era Kentucky, the novel serves as a testament to the power of the written word, arguing that words can traverse barriers between class, race and individual differences.
Richardson’s heroine, 19-year-old Cussy Mary Carter, has blue skin. Based on the true story on the blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the Pack Horse Library Project, Cussy faces discrimination and danger as she tackles her routes as a traveling librarian. Hired by the WPA, Cussy’s job entails trekking across treacherous mountain passes to carry books to students and families who do not have access to them.
Along her travels, Cussy encounters a variety of people, many of whom are frightened by her skin color. However, her kindness and her continued dedication sway her patrons’ emotions, leading to real friendships and compassion. Throughout the novel, the influence of books is magical. Many of Cussy’s patrons are impoverished, starving and barely know how to read; yet, the instruction manuals, novels, pamphlets and knowledge she brings eases their pain and gives them hope. Cussy’s job is “a joy bolted free, lessening my own grievances, forgiving spent youth and dying dreams lost to a hard life, the hard land, and to folks’ hard thoughts and partialities.”
Not all of the hillfolk are taken in by Cussy, though. While on the job and at home, Cussy lives in fear of being hunted by bigots. When confronted with doctors who think they have a cure, Cussy encounters a whole new set of dilemmas and a whole new brand of racism. As she continues to battle through her difficult life with grace and benevolence, Cussy holds fast to her books and her patrons: the only people and things who seem to accept her as she is. Cussy’s self-reliance, perseverance and generosity are inspiring to say the least. Richardson has created a beautiful role model, one who demonstrates the unlimited and immeasurable strength of women.
Richardson’s descriptions throughout the novel breathe life into the mountains, the books and the lives of her characters. She captures both the beauty of the mountains and the ugliness of ignorance. Despite so much tragedy, the novel bleeds hope. It serves as a wonderful reminder that our similarities can overcome our differences—and a love of reading is one of those similarities. In a time of constant polarization, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek reminds us that all is not lost.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is one of our 2019 summer reads. View the full Summer Reading List here.