May Read of the Month: “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek,” by Kim Michele Richardson

Kim Michele Richardson

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason 

Readers are likely to find Ms. Richardson’s fourth novel to be one of the most original and unusual contributions they will encounter in the realm of the current literature of the American South. Set in the heart of the Great Depression, this engaging story rests on two little-known historical features. One of these is the existence of a shunned community of blue-skinned people who fight racial prejudice on a daily basis. However, they are not racially different from the whites who taunt and disrespect them. They are Caucasian in physical features and in all ways but skin color. Nonetheless, being different dooms them, defining them as misfits.

The other historical feature is the author’s exploration of the “book women,” workers in one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s projects to rebuild the U. S. economy and provide useful employment along the way.

The project is essentially educational – an attempt to bring reading materials – and enhanced literacy – to isolated communities. In this case, the communities are in Kentucky’s coal mining belt. The Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project is staffed by dedicated people, mostly women, who not only travel arduous routes to serve their clients, but also bring an unexpected, uplifting enlightenment to those who are brave enough to find value in books other than the bible.

These workers help the children, and even the parents, develop a love of reading along with greater reading skill. They provide reading suggestions, they keep tabs on the books in their charge, and their visits become high points on the calendars of those whom they visit.

Straddling these interests is Ms. Richardson’s narrator, Cussy Mary Carter, by some affectionately called Bluet, who at nineteen is one of the roving librarians. Yes, she is also one of the blue people. Her vehicle is a mule, and that mule is her best friend and protector. The woods they traverse are dangerous places.

Cussy’s father, invariably called “Pa” by the narrator, had made a promise to his late wife that their daughter would be married and thereby socially and economically secure. However, the courters have not taken the bait. Mr. Carter is frantic to make a match for Cussy as his health is failing after long years of toil in the coal mines of East Kentucky. His blue skin is covered by the black coating of coal dust.

The relationship between daughter and father is beautifully portrayed; it is a mix of deep love and opposing viewpoints.

A neighboring doctor performs research, experiments, and finds a cure for the blue-skin condition. However, the debilitating side effects of the treatment only become a new curse on Cussy’s existence.

For a book-loving young woman, Cussy’s conversational narrative style carries local locutions that might sound illiterate. Somehow, Ms. Richardson creates an unexpected poetry out of Cussy’s voice and speech patterns.

That voice is not the only kind of unexpected beauty in this surprising novel. The author’s rendering of the surrounding flora that Cussy appreciates is remarkably rich and captivating. Soul-stirring is Cussy’s acceptance of an infant child to raise as her own. Readers find out quite soon how very well prepared she is for this new and unexpected role.

Kim Michele Richardson’s presentation of her protagonist’s challenges and perseverance within a culture hostile to deviation from norms is a significant accomplishment. Equally valuable is her reminder of the priceless necessity, the enduring thrill, of books and reading.

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