Have you heard of the blue-skinned people of Kentucky? Or the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project? I hadn’t until my friend Kat introduced me to Cussy, the blue-skinned librarian of the historical fiction novel The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. The Pack Horse Library Project was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and 1935 Works Projects Administration, aimed at getting books to the mostly poor people living in remote parts of the Appalachian Mountains. The librarians rode mules or horses to deliver books, magazines and other publications to nearly impossible to reach places. The first blue-skinned person in Kentucky was a French immigrant who transmitted the condition, later identified as the disease methemoglobinemia, through intermarriage. The blue-skinned people were discriminated against and alienated from the community.
If you like history, social issues, romance, a little suspense...or stubborn four-legged creatures, you'll like this book. The historical events, as well as the co-star mule, Junia, have been carefully researched, then presented in a simple, easy-to-read style. In spite of skimming over a few plot details here and there, I was able to put myself in the shoes of these reviled blue-skinned people; I admired the librarians who fearlessly travelled the mountainside to deliver books. I wish these important aspects of American History had been taught in my school.
Chat with Kat
Part of the pleasure of reading is exchanging opinions with different readers and friends. Thank you, Kat for sending me this book across the Atlantic, so we could compare notes. Let's chat!
Kat, why did you read The Book Woman... in the first place?
My other book friend, Marilyn, passed it along to me.
Well, I'm honoured to be one of your two "book friends"! At times while reading the book, I would have preferred a non-fiction account of the blue-skinned people, to learn all the details without necessarily following a fictional story. Do you have a preference between non-fiction and historical fiction? I’m not sure I have a preference, but sometimes you don’t know you’re even interested in something until you put a person's actual story to it. Before reading the book I never thought about the early history of libraries and especially in such a remote place.
That’s a good point. There’s always something new to learn. What did you especially like? I love a good outcome for a young woman, this one was so inspiring. And I loved her relationship with the mule. (By the way, I recommend watching All Creatures Great and Small.) I love how Cussy, the main character, took her book deliveries as being so important. She took such pride in her role bringing joy and learning to others. A real professional! She had a calling. I love stores about "callings". I’ve not read anything else by this author, but would like to.
How did you feel about the doctor using Cussy for his experimental research for curing the blue-skin condition? Lots of mixed feelings, sad that she couldn’t be accepted for who she is, like in Rudolph when they try to cover up his unique red nose. I was scared for her, not trusting of the doctor, and hoped that eventually she would be allowed to be herself. What about you?
For me that was the most difficult scene. The insensitive treatment reminded me of experiments done on African American women in the 50s, addressed by Toni Morrison in her novel Home. I think the doctor could have treated her more respectfully, even if he was trying to (and eventually did) find a cure. I wished the author said more about this experimentation, but I think she did her job by including the scene and it's up to the reader to think about it.
Read an interview with author Kim Michele Richardson here.
Read about Henrietta Lacks, an African American whose cells, removed without her permission, have been vital to medical research and saving lives.