Trigger warning for rape.
In The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Kim Michele Richardson weaves together two historical events to create an incredible story of a woman caught in the web of racism, superstition, hard times, love, and more. Cussy Mary Carter is the last Blue Carter, the last member of a family who have strange blue skin. In spite of her color, Cussy Mary works as a Pack Mule Librarian to deliver books and magazines to remote hollers and mountains in her corner of eastern Kentucky. Nothing is easy for Cussy Mary in this book. At times, I wondered what more Richardson could throw at her protagonist without breaking the young woman. Thankfully, Cussy Mary is the kind of person who will always get back up after she’s been knocked down.
We don’t meet Cussy Mary under the best of circumstances. Her father is determined to get her married and he doesn’t really care who. Potential suitors are thin on the ground because of the color of her skin. She’s caucasian but she’s not white. Like her father and some members of her family, Cussy Mary has blue skin. (When she blushes, other characters say she looks like a blueberry.) Some people think the blue is contagious; more are sure that any children she has will be blue. In spite of her protestations, Cussy Mary gets hitched to the only man who will take her, a truly horrible man who has the decency to have a fatal stroke before he can permanently damage her. Now known as either the Widow Frazier or her old nickname, Bluet (after the damselfly), Cussy Mary returns to her job as a pack mule librarian. If she can just dodge the people who are more than willing to abuse her, physically or verbally, because of her skin, she’s content with her life as a librarian—no matter how much her father grumbles about the need for her to be safely married in case anything happens to him in the coal mine.
So much happens in The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek that it’s hard to believe that it all happens over the course of 1936. We follow Cussy Mary from her ill-fated marriage to her return to her route through the mountains. We also see the preacher stalking her, the man on the mountain who seems to like her and her color, and the doctor who will not let up until she agrees to let him try to cure her blueness. We see the best and (mostly) worst days of Cussy Mary’s 1936. To be honest, though, there were times when I was startled to be reminded that it was 1936. The people on Cussy Mary’s route are more likely to use herbs and folk remedies (such as “mad stones,” rocks that were believed to ward off rabies) than pay for a doctor. So little news makes it through that the mountains feel completely cut off from the rest of the world. Except for the occasionally reminder about World War I or vaccines, this book could have been set anywhere in the nineteenth or even eighteenth century.
The events of Cussy’s life not only help relate the stories of the Blue Fugates—the inspiration for Cussy’s Blue Carters—and the pack mule librarian program, but also the absurd cruelty of racial prejudice and the stubborn beliefs of backwoods Kentuckians. The only thing I didn’t understand about this book is Cussy’s devotion to her father. I loathed the man for most of the book. I consider his determination to marry his daughter off at the beginning of the book completely unforgivable. That said, there is a lot of food for thought in this book, assuming that readers can get past the brutal opening chapter of the book. Once I got past them, I was hooked by Cussy’s story. She reads like a quiet missionary, spreading the gospel of reading and educational betterment through books. Bad weather, worse roads, people who greet strangers with weapons, and a deeply disapproving father cannot stop her from delivering her battered books to her readers.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.