The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson (2019) tells the story of Cussy Mary, a Pack Horse Librarian in Kentucky during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Cussy Mary, known as Bluet to her friends, is one of the rare “Blue People” of the mountains, whose skin is blue. We don’t know why she is blue at the beginning, but the cause is later found when the town doctor (“Doc”) takes an interest in her and tries to help.
Bluet’s father, a coal miner, wants to get her married so she’ll be taken care of in case anything happens to him, but Bluet is happy with her books and her patrons. After a disastrous 1-day marriage, she goes back to her route. Her best friend is fellow librarian Queenie, the only Negro Pack Horse Librarian. Both Cussie Mary and Queenie are forbidden from using the powder room in the Library Center, where the head librarian hung up and zealously enforced a “No Coloreds” sign.
In exchange for Doc to agree to keep a necessary secret, Bluet accompanies him in his motor car (her first time in one) to Lexington to be examined by doctors there so they can figure out why she’s blue and whether it can be fixed. He gives her food and medicine, which she gives away to those she thinks are needier than her. Kids in the hills are dying from hunger and medicine is in short supply.
After Doc tries a temporary cure for her blue skin, Cussie Mary is enthralled with the idea of being white. But is a cure really needed for something that isn’t a disease? There is romance and tragedy and Bluet is a character to aspire to be like, most often thinking of others in terribly difficult circumstances.
In 2020, I read The Giver of Stars, by Jojo Moyes, which shares some broad similarities with Book Woman, in that they’re both about the Pack Horse Librarians. There has been some controversy about them, but I agree with author Barbara Delinsky, who states here that they are “Very. Different. Books. I loved both.” Although there are some plot points in common, they feel unique, with the focus on Cussy Mary here, and her wrestling with her feelings about and coming to terms with her color. The voice is very different, with Cussy Mary sometimes struggling to use “proper English,” contrasted with the British protagonist in Giver of Stars. So my recommendation would be to read both if Pack Horse Librarians interest you at all.
There was a tiny bit of fatphobia in Book Woman. Harriet, the awful head librarian, is described early in the book as “plump” and, at one point, defending Cussy Mary, Doc tells Harriet to “attend to your own figure, and if you cannot watch that . . . .nor will any man.” It’s a small bit, but it was not necessary. Harriet didn’t need to be plump to be hateful (her words made that clear enough) and Doc didn’t need to shame her with the trope that every fat woman is familiar with: You’ll never find a man if you don’t lose weight!
There’s also whiteness as a central theme–should Cussy Mary continue with the “cure” for her blue skin? What about her friend Queenie, who has no medicine to make her white? What does it say about us if we consider Cussy Mary’s blue skin in a different way than Queenie’s brown skin?
Like all good books, it raises a lot of questions and things to think about. I would highly recommend it.