THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK
The folks of Troublesome Creek have to scrap for everything—everything except books, that is. Thanks to Roosevelt’s Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project, Troublesome’s got its very own traveling librarian, Cussy Mary Carter.
Cussy’s not only a book woman, however; she’s also the last of her kind, her skin a shade of blue unlike most anyone else. Not everyone is keen on Cussy’s family or the government’s new book program, and along her treacherous route, Cussy faces doubters at every turn. If Cussy wants to bring the joy of books to the complex and hardscrabble Kentuckians, she’s going to have to confront dangers and prejudice as old as the Appalachias,
The folks of Troublesome Creek have to scrap for everything—everything except books, that is. Thanks to Roosevelt’s Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project, Troublesome’s got its very own traveling librarian, Cussy Mary Carter.
Cussy’s not only a book woman, however; she’s also the last of her kind, her skin a shade of blue unlike most anyone else. Not everyone is keen on Cussy’s family or the government’s new book program, and along her treacherous route, Cussy faces doubters at every turn. If Cussy wants to bring the joy of books to the complex and hardscrabble Kentuckians, she’s going to have to confront dangers and prejudice as old as the Appalachias, and suspicion as deep as the holler.
Inspired by the true blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Kentucky Pack Horse library service of the 1930s, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a story of raw courage, fierce strength, and one woman’s belief that books can carry us anywhere—even back home.
- May 2019
- 320 Pages
“Fascinating…impressive storytelling.” —Ron Rash, New York Times bestselling author
“Emotionally resonant and unforgettable.” —Joshilyn Jackson, New York Times bestselling author
“A hauntingly atmospheric love letter to the first mobile library.” —Sara Gruen, New York Times bestselling author
“A timeless and significant tale about…how books can bring hope and light to even the darkest pocket in history.” —Karen Abbott, New York Times bestselling author
1. The Kentucky Pack Horse program was implemented in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to create women’s work programs and to assist economic recovery and build literacy. Looking at the novel, how did the program affect the people in this remote area? Do you think library programs are still a vital part of our society today?
2. How has a librarian or booklover impacted your life? Have you ever connected with a book or author in a meaningful way? Explain.
3. Missionaries, government, social workers, and various religious groups have always visited eastern Kentucky to reform, modernize, and mold hillfolk to their acceptable standards. Do you think Cussy faced this kind of prejudice from the outside world? Is there any prejudice or stigma associated with the people of Appalachia today?
4. How do you think Cussy’s father feels after he marries her off to an abusive man? Why do you think he agrees to Charlie Frazier’s proposal in the first place? What do you imagine life was like for an unwed woman at that time?
5. Imagine you are making a community scrapbook like the ones Cussy distributes to the people of Troublesome. What would you include? Do you think these materials were helpful to Cussy’s library patrons?
6. When Cussy receives the cure for her blueness from Doc, she realizes there’s a price to pay for her white skin, and the side effects soon become too much to handle. If you were in Cussy’s shoes, would you sacrifice your health for a chance at “normalcy”? If there weren’t any side effects, do you think Cussy would have continued to take the medication? Would you?
7. How do you think Cussy feels when she is ostracized at the Independence Day celebration, despite her change of skin color? Can you relate to her feelings of isolation? Do you think these kinds of racial prejudices are still prevalent today?
8. Cussy has to deal with the loss of many loved ones in a very short amount of time. How do you think she handles her grief ? Which loss was the most difficult for you to read?
9. What do you think life was like for the people of Troublesome? What are some of the highlights of living in such a remote place? What are some of the challenges the people on Cussy’s library route face?
10. Back then, entering into a prohibited or interracial marriage in Kentucky was a misdemeanor that could result in incarceration, and we see these racial tensions attempt to sever Cussy and Jackson’s relationship. Discuss anti-miscegenation laws and marriage laws. Do you think this kind of prejudice still exists toward interracial couples?
11. What do you think happens to Cussy, Jackson, Honey, and the other inhabitants of Troublesome after the story ends? Imagine you were Cussy. How would you feel leaving Troublesome for good?
The librarian and her mule spotted it at the same time. The creature’s ears shot up, and it came to a stop so sudden its front hooves skidded out, the pannier slipping off, spilling out the librarian’s books. An eddy of dirt and debris lifted, stinging the woman’s eyes. The mule struggled to look upward, backward, anywhere other than at the thing in front of it.
The book woman couldn’t keep her eyes off the spectacle as she shortened the reins and clamped her legs against the mule’s sides. Again, she prodded her mount. Baring tall, sassing teeth, the beast lifted its muzzle into the balsam–sweetened air, the quavering brays blistering the sleepy mountain.
The woman stiffened, drawing the reins in tighter. In front of her, a body swayed back and forth below the fat branch from which it hung. A rope, collared tight around the neck, creaked from the strain of its weight. A kettle of turkey buzzards circled above, dipping their ugly, naked heads toward the lifeless form, their tail–chasing shadows riddling the dying grass.
From the scorched earth rose strange cries, and the librarian pulled her stunned gaze away from the corpse and toward the ground.
Beside a large toppled can, a baby lay in the dirt, the tiny face pinched, scalded with fury.
Mountain breezes dipped lazily, shifting, carrying the stench of death and its soiling. The weighted branch crackled, groaning under its burden. A bloodied sock inched down from a limp, cerulean–blue foot. The librarian gawked at the striking blue flesh and cupped a hand over her mouth. The stocking slipped off, landing beside the squalling baby’s head.
The wind rose higher, then plunged, skittering across the sock as if trying to lift it, but it stayed stubbornly put, rooted to the earth—-too heavy to be sent off by a mere summer breeze.
The book woman looked up, lifted one darkening hand in front of her own blue–colored face as if comparing her color to that of the hanging corpse. She examined her cobalt–blue flesh, then dared to peek back up at the dead body, bound, eternally rooted like the black oak to the hard, everlasting Kentucky land so many tried so hard to escape.
The new year was barely fifteen hours old in Troublesome Creek, Kentucky, when my pa adjusted the courting candle, setting it to burn for an alarming length of time.
Satisfied, Pa carried it out of our one–room log house and onto the hand–hewn porch. He was hopeful. Hoping 1936 was the year his only daughter, nineteen–year–old Cussy Mary Carter, would get herself hitched and quit her job with the Pack Horse Library Project. Hoping for her latest suitor’s proposal.
“Cussy,” he called over his shoulder, “before your mama passed, I promised her I’d see to it you got yourself respectability, but I’ve nearly gone busted buying candles to get you some. Let this stick hold the fire, Daughter.” He hoisted the old wrought–iron candle-holder higher by its iron–forged rattail and once more played with the wooden slide, moving the taper up and down inside the spiral coil.
“I’ve got a respectable life,” I said quietly, following him out to the porch, taking a seat on the wooden chair, and huddling under the patchwork eiderdown I’d dragged along. The first day of Janu-ary had brought a skift of snow to our home in the cove. Pa set the candle down and struck a match to light a lantern hanging from the porch.
Two winter moths chased the light, circling, landing nearby. A clean wetting mingled into woodsmoke and umbrella’d the tiny cabin. Shivering, I buried my nose into the coverlet as a cutting wind scraped down mountains, dragging soft whistles through piney boughs and across bare black branches.
In a minute, Pa picked back up the courting candle, raised a finger above the wick, and jutted his chin, the approval cinched in his brow.
“Pa, I have me a good job making us twenty–eight dollars a month delivering books to folks who’s needing the book learning in these hills.”
“I’m back to work now that the mine is running full time.” Pa pinched the wick.
“They still need me—-”
“I need you safe. You could catch your death in this cold, same as your mama. You’re all I have, Cussy, all that’s left of our kind. The very last one, Daughter.”
He reached down and brushed a lock of hair away from my eyes. “I won’t see you riding that ol’ mount up and down them dangerous passes and into dark hollers and cold creeks just because the government wants to push their foolish book airs into our hills here.”
“You could be struck ill. Just look what happened to that book woman and her mount. Foolhardy, and the poor steed was punished for her temerity.”
Snow gusted, swirled, eddying across the leaf–quilted yard.
“It was along in years, Pa. My rented mount is spry and sure–footed enough. And I’m fine and fit as any.” I glanced down at my darkening hands, a silent blue betrayal. Quickly, I slipped them under the folds of fabric, forcing myself to stay calm. “Sound. Please. It’s decent money—”
“Where’s your decency? Some of the womenfolk are complaining you’re carrying dirty books up them rocks.”
“Weren’t true. It’s called literature, and proper enough,” I tried to explain like so many times before. “Robinson Crusoe, and Dick-ens, and the likes, and lots of Popular Mechanics and Woman’s Home Companion even. Pamphlets with tips on fixing things bust-ed. Patterns for sewing. Cooking and cleaning. Making a dollar stretch. Important things, Pa. Respectable—”
“Airish. It ain’t respectable for a female to be riding these rough hills, behaving like a man,” he said, a harshness rumbling his voice.
“It helps educate folks and their young’uns.” I pointed to a small sack in the corner filled with magazines I’d be delivering in the next days. “Remember the National Geographic article about Great–Grandpa’s birthplace over in Cussy, France, the one I’m named for? You liked it—-”
“Dammit, you have earned your name and driven me to nothing but cussing with your willful mind. I don’t need a damn book to tell me about our kin’s birthplace or your given name. Me and your mama know’d it just fine.” He raised a brow, worrying some more with the flame on the courting candle, resting the height of the taper to where he wanted. And as always and depending on the man who came calling, how long he wanted the old timekeeper to stay lit.
Pa looked off toward the creek, then back at the candle, and set his sights once more over to the banks, studying. He fought between raising the timekeeping candle and lowering it, mumbling a curse, and setting it somewhere in the middle. A taper would be cranked up tall to burn for a lengthy visit, or tamped down short for any beau Elijah Carter didn’t favor as a good suitor.
“Pa, people want the books. It’s my job to tend to the folks who are hungry for the learning.”
He lifted the courting candle. “A woman ought to be near the home fires tending that.”
“But if I marry, the WPA will fire me. Please, I’m a librarian now. Why, even Eleanor Roosevelt approves—”
“The First Lady ain’t doing a man’s job—-ain’t my unwed daughter—-and ain’t riding an ornery ass up a crooked mountain.”
“People are learning up there.” Again, I glimpsed my hands and rubbed them under the quilt. “Books are the best way to do that—”
“The best thing they need is food on their tables. Folks here are hungry, Daughter. The babies are starving and sickly, the old folks are dying. We’re gnawing on nothing but bone teeth here. Not two weeks ago, widow Caroline Barnes walked nine miles for naught to save her babies up there.”
I had heard the poor woman staggered into town with the pellagra rash and died in the street. Many times I’d glimpsed the rash set in from starvation. And last month a woman up in a holler lost five of her twelve children from it, and farther up in the hills, a whole family had died the month before.
“But folks tell me the books eases their burdens, it’s the best thing that could happen to them,” I argued.
“They can’t live off the chicken scratch in them books,” Pa said, flicking the wick and hushing me. “And this”—he rapped the can-dleholder with a knuckle—“is what’s best for you.”
Jutted up high like that, the candle’s nakedness seemed desperate, embarrassing. I caught the unsettling in Pa’s gray eyes too.
It didn’t matter that for a long time I’d shared Pa’s fears about what might become of his only daughter, until the day I’d heard about Roosevelt creating his relief program called the New Deal to help folks around here during the Depression. We’d been de-pressed as long as I could remember, but now, all of the sudden, the government said we needed help and aimed to do just that. The president had added the Works Progress Administration last year to put females to work and bring literature and art into the Kaintuck man’s life. For many mountainfolk, all of us around here, it was our first taste of what a library could give, a taste to be savored—-one that left behind a craving for more.
I’d seen the flyers in town asking for womenfolk to apply for the job to tote books around these hills on a mount. I snuck an application and filled it out without Pa knowing, applying to be a Pack Horse librarian a month after Mama died.
“They gave you the job?” Pa had puzzled when I got it last summer.
I didn’t tell him I’d bypassed the supervisors here by picking up my application at the post office. The job application said you could turn it in to the head librarian in your town or send it to the Pack Horse libraries’ manager directly by mailing it to Frankfort. It didn’t say anything about color, and certainly not mine. But I’d taken my chances with city folks I’d never meet instead of trusting it to the bosses here in Troublesome.
“Did no one else apply?” Pa had questioned me. “You can’t work,” he’d added just as quick.
“Pa, we need the money, and it’s honorable work and—-”
“A workin’ woman will never knot.”
“Who would marry a Blue? Who would want me?”
I was positive no one would wed one of the Blue People of Kentucky. Wouldn’t hitch with a quiet woman whose lips and nails were blue–jay blue, with skin the color of the bluet patches growing around our woods.
I could barely meet someone’s eyes for fear my color would be-tray my sensibilities. A mere blush, a burst of joy or anger, or sudden startle, would crawl across my skin, deepening, changing my softer appearance to a ripened blueberry hue, sending the other person scurrying. There didn’t seem to be much marriage prospect for the last female of blue mountainfolk who had befuddled the rest of the Commonwealth—-folks around the country and doctors even. A fit girl who could turn as blue as the familiar bluet damsel-fly skimming Kentucky creek beds, the old mountain doctor had once puzzled and then promptly nicknamed me Bluet. As soon as the word fell out of his mouth, it stuck to me.
Whenever we’d talk about it, Pa would say, “Cussy, you have a chance to marry someone that’s not the same as you, someone who can get you out of here. That’s why I dig coal. Why I work for scratch.”
And the disgrace would linger in the dead air to gnaw at me. Folks thought our clan was inbreeds, nothing but. Weren’t true. My great–grandpa, a Blue from France, settled in these hills and wedded himself a full–blooded white Kentuckian. Despite that, they’d had several blue children among their regular white–looking ones. And a few of them married strangers, but the rest had to hitch with kin because they couldn’t travel far, same as other mountain clans around all these parts.
Soon, we Blues pushed ourselves deeper into the hills to escape the ridicule. Into the blackest part of the land. Pa liked that just fine, saying it was best, safer for me, the last of our kind, the last one. But I’d read about those kinds in the magazines. The eastern elk, the passenger pigeon. The extinctions. Why, most of the critters had been hunted to extinction. The thought of being hunted, becoming extinct, being the last Blue, the very last of my kind on earth, left me so terror–struck and winded that I would race to the looking glass, claw at my throat, and knock my chest to steal the breath back.
A lot of people were leery of our looks. Though with Pa working the coal, his mostly pale–blue skin didn’t bother folks much when all miners came out of the hole looking the same.
But I didn’t have coal to disguise me in black or white Kentucky. Didn’t have myself an escape until I’d gotten the precious book route. In those old dark–treed pockets, my young patrons would glimpse me riding my packhorse, toting a pannier full of books, and they’d light a smile and call out “Yonder comes Book Woman… Book Woman’s here!” And I’d forget all about my peculiarity, and why I had it, and what it meant for me.
Just recently, Eula Foster, the head librarian of the Pack Horse project, remarked about my smarts, saying the book job had given me an education as fine as any school could.
I was delighted to hear her words. Proud, I’d turned practically purple, despite the fact that she had said it to the other Pack Horse librarians in an air of astonishment: “If a Blue can get that much learning from our books, imagine what the program can do for our normal folk… A light in these dark times, for sure…”
And I’d basked in the warm light that had left me feeling like a book-read woman.
But when Pa heard about Agnes’s frightening journey, how her packhorse up and quit her in the snow last month, his resolve to get me hitched deepened. And soon after, he’d shone a blinding light back on my color and offered up a generous five–dollar dowry plus ten acres of our woodland. Men, both long in the tooth and schooling young, sought my courtship, ignoring I was one of them Blue people when the prospect of land ownership presented itself. A few would boldly ask about my baby–making as if discussing a farm animal—-seeking a surety that their Kentucky sons and daughters wouldn’t have the blueness too.
Why, for all Pa cared, it could be the beastly troll in “The Three Billy Goats Gruff ” who wanted my hand. Lately, he’d been setting the timekeeping candle uncomfortably long for whoever was keen on calling.
But I couldn’t risk it. The WPA regulations said females with an employable husband wouldn’t be eligible for a job because the husband is the logical head of the family.
Logical. I liked my sensibility just fine. I liked my freedom a lot—-loved the solitude these last seven months had given me—-and I lived for the joy of bringing books and reading materials to the hillfolk who were desperate for my visits, the printed word that brought a hopeful world into their dreary lives and dark hollers. It was necessary.
And for the first time in my life, I felt necessary.
“Right there’ll do it.” Pa fussed one last time with the slide on the courting candle, then finally placed the timekeeper on the table in front of my rocker and the empty seat beside me. He grabbed his carbide–lamp helmet off a peg and looked out to the dark woods across the creek that passed through our property.
The snow picked up, dropping fat flakes. “Reckon he’ll be showing up any minute, Daughter.”
Sometimes the suitor didn’t. I hoped this would be one of those times.
“I’ll be off.” He dropped a matchbook into the timekeeper’s drip tray, eyeing the candle one final time.
Frantic, I grabbed his sleeve and whispered, “Please, Pa, I don’t want to marry.”
“What’s wrong with you, Daughter? It ain’t natural to defy the Lord’s natural order.”
I took his palm in mine and pressed the silent plea into it.
Pa looked at my coloring hand and pulled his away. “I gave up my sleep to ride over to his holler and arrange this.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but he held up a shushing hand.
“This harsh land ain’t for a woman to bear alone. It’s cruel enough on a man.” Pa reached for his hand–carved bear poker with the razor–sharp arrowhead tip. “I’ve been digging my grave since the first day I dug coal. I’ll not dig two.” He tapped the poker against the boards. “You will take a husband so you’ll have some-one to care for you when I no longer can.”
He buttoned his coat and grabbed his tin lunch bucket off the porch boards, ambling off to his night shift down at the coal mine.
Hearing a horse’s strangled whinny, I turned toward a rustling in the trees, straining to listen above the prattling song of creek waters. The courter would be here shortly.
I leaned over the wood railing and peered out. When I could no longer see the flicker of Pa’s miner’s lamp and was sure he’d disappeared into the woods, I reached over, adjusted the wooden slide on the timekeeping candle, and lowered the taper to where the wax would touch the old spiral holder’s lip within a few minutes of being burnt—a signal to this latest suitor that a prompt and swift departure was in mind.
Raising my hands, I watched them quiet to a duck-egg blue.
A Conversation with the Author
What drew you to the stories of the Pack Horse librarians and the blue-skinned people of Kentucky?
Years ago, I stumbled across these heroic librarians of the Great Depression and the rare blue-skinned Kentuckians, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I wanted to embrace their strengths and uniqueness in story. There was such rich, magnificent history in the two, I was surprised I hadn’t seen them in a novel, that neither had been given a footprint in literary history. I knew it was time for the wider world to experience them in a novel, to learn about, to see, the glorious Kentucky female Pack Horse librarians and the precious blue-skinned mountain folk.Your novel is deeply rooted in the history of Appalachia.
What research did you do to bring this time period to life?
Research is my favorite part of the writing process. I spent thousands of hours exploring everything from fauna to flora to folklore to food, as well as longtime traditions indigenous to Appalachia. I’m also able to live in that landscape and spend time with native Appalachians who have taught me the lyrics and language of their people and ancestors. Other research took me to coal-mining towns and their history, visiting doctors, speaking with a hematologist to learn about congenital methemoglobinemia, and exploring fire tower lookouts and their history. Years ago, I started collecting everything I could find on the Pack Horse librarians, poring over archives, old newspapers, pictures, the history, etc. I spent many hours on Roosevelt’s New Deal and WPA programs and conducted interviews. And last, there was the fun and interesting research on mules.
What does your writing process look like?
I’ve long been a kitchen table author, one who sets aside the recipe, forsakes the rules—the do’s and don’ts, the shant’s, shouldn’ts, and won’ts. This doesn’t mean I don’t respect the rules—it simply allows me the unleashed freedom to create the story intimately and lyrically, as if I’m sitting at my kitchen table across from you and telling it. There’s the occasional detour, of course, and sometimes I take out the guardrails going one hundred miles per hour. And there’s piles of research papers, the countless scraps and sticky notes littered everywhere in my office, on my desk and shelves. My dear husband usually creates cool, detailed drawings of my fictional towns to anchor and keep me straight. At all times, there’s my beloved rescue pets wandering in and out of my office. Music is a must-have, and I try to create a playlist to reflect the moods and themes in my stories. My music influence is broad, passionate, and can dip into everything from opera to bluegrass to rock, and on to classical, big band, jazz, rap, country, and indie. During edits, all is quiet, and I’m slow, turtle slow, and also painfully meticulous, and can absolutely sit on a single paragraph for days, working and fretting over it. I generally devote anywhere from eight to fourteen hours a day to writing, research, and book-related stuff.
Did your own experiences living in Kentucky inspire or influence any of the descriptions in the book?
Yes, Kentucky is both a beautiful and brutal place full of fascinating history, varied landscapes, complex people and culture, and I’m fortunate to live in a region that I can draw on from the heart.
Do you see any similarities between yourself and Cussy? Differences?
I grew up under the grinding heels of poverty, spending my first decade in a rural Kentucky orphanage, moving on to foster care, and then finding myself homeless at age fourteen. I can relate to marginalized people and have much empathy for Cussy and her family, anyone who has faced or faces prejudices and hardships. It’s easy to feel their pain deeply, particularly if you’ve gone through hardships in your own life.
If you had to choose, what is one of your favorite moments from the novel?
One of my dearest is when young Angeline takes Cussy Mary’s hand, despite knowing the implication of being friendly with a blue, and rings a simple truth by saying “Hain’t no harm. Our hands don’t care they’s different colors. Feels nice jus’ the same, huh?”
Throughout the novel, we see the positive effects the Pack Horse library service has on this small, remote community. Do you think libraries still have that kind of impact today?
Absolutely, and now more than ever. As I mentioned earlier, I was raised in an orphanage. Later, as a foster child in 1970, I remember going to my first library one lonely summer and checking out a book. The librarian sized me up and then quietly said, “Only one? You look smarter than a one-book read, and I bet we can find you more than just one.” She reached under her counter, snapped open a folded brown-paper sack, handed it to me, and then marched me over to shelves filled with glorious books. I was shocked that I could get more than one book, much less a bag full of precious books, and I was moved by her compassion, kindness, and wisdom. Librarians are lifelines for so many, giving us powerful resources to help us become empowered.
What are some of your favorite libraries to visit?
I love hitting the backroads to seek out small-town libraries. These places are treasured cornerstones filled with social mores—hidden gems that offer an opulence of customs, inspira-tion, and warm hospitality.
Who are some of your favorite authors to read?
There are so many talented writers out there to pick from, it makes the choice difficult. However, one influence and much-loved author of mine has always been E. B. White. Charlotte’s Web is a jewel that tapped into my love for nature and animals. And every time I read it, I learned something new. It has that wonderful Hitchcockian first line—“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”—and is infused with magical verses of dewy spiderwebs, “Some Pig” miracles, and unconditional friendship. Some Book—Some Author! Harriette Simpson Arnow, John Fox Jr., Gwyn Hyman Rubio, and Walter Tevis are some of my longtime favorite Kentucky novelists who wrote unforgettable masterpieces. Each one brings the pages to life with rich, evoca-tive landscapes, beautifully told stories, and highly skilled prose.
What do you hope readers will ultimately take away from Cussy’s story?
Poverty and marginalization are not so much economics or politics or societal issues as much as they are human issues. They are best grappled with by reaching deep into the lives of those suffering them. Knowing one small piece of this world—the earth, the sky, the plants, the people, and the very air of it—helps us to understand the sufferings and joys of others ourselves