The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek

 The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

In the 1930s the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project hired people to deliver books and magazines to the remote hill-people of that state. In this tale of historical fiction, Cussy Mary Carter, 16, is one of those pack horse librarians, riding her mule through trails fraught with danger from animals and people, to bring the joy and power of the written word to people living in desperate poverty. She was welcomed, or at least tolerated, by her patrons who were happy to get the books, but ostracized by  others because she looked different. Her skin was blue.

The blue people of Kentucky actually existed, though when I bought the book I thought that was fiction, too. There's information online if you'd like to learn more about them. In the 1960s the cause of blue skin was identified as methemoglobinemia, easier to pronounce if you read it as met-hemoglobin-emia. An enzyme deficiency turned the blood brown and the skin blue, but once it was known to be a medical issue a treatment was developed to turn the skin back to it's natural colour in mere minutes if they took the daily medication.

Troublesome Creek is also an actual place, and not - as in my ignorance I thought likely - made up to create a good book title. An online description says this "The creek, which runs through Knott County, was so named because of its nearly impassable game trail. Even experienced hunters could not weave their way through the valley, as large trees, creeping vines, and misshapen stones guarded the pathways of the creek."

As "a blue", Cussy Mary is treated as different, inferior, and dangerous - a devil people were afraid to even touch. Her father is worried that when he's gone there'll be on one to protect her, so he sets out to find a man willing to court her. Soon he marries her off to one who turns out to be ignorant and abusive, but fortunately (oh did I write that out loud...) he dies on their wedding night. That's not a spoiler because it happens early in the story.

Cussy Mary returns to her father's house and her job as a bookwoman among the hill people. She meets a man who doesn't care about her different colour and that friendship develops throughout the rest of the story, though to me they don't spend enough time getting to know one another to call it a romantic relationship. 

The main themes of the story are the expansion of minds and lives through access to books, the harsh realities of poverty, and the terrible injustices of prejucide. The romance thread weaves through it but is thin.  

Life is brutal for many of the characters - destitution, children dying of starvation, suffering and deaths from lack of medical care -  but there are enough moments of tenderness and natural beauty written into the narrative to relieve the harshness of it. I think she strikes a good balance between the two.  

I had no knowledge of the blue people, or the terrible conditions in which they and others in the mountains lived, and I'm glad I read it for that, but the interesting history wasn't quite enough to make this a great read for me. I found parts of the dialogue - and even a few circumstances in the plot -  unconvincing. It had nothing to do with their Southern accents or colloquialisms, or with Cussy Mary being blue or a bookwoman, just something in the writing that didn't seem quite realistic at times. That will not be a popular opinion, as I haven't found a single reviewer who agrees with me, and it could be my reading of it has been too shallow. This was an audio book, which I seldom find I get as much from as from reading, but for me the history lesson was better than the story.

I bought the sequel, The Bookwoman's Daughter, at the same time as this one and will listen to it next, though to be honest it's more because I already have it on my Kobo than from any keen interest in knowing how the story progresses.

The Bookwoman's Daughter

I listened to a bit more than a third of this and quit. No real plot, too many irrelevant details and a lot of dialogue that only filled up space. Nowhere near as interesting as the first one.


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