Contemporary postal carriers don’t realize how good they’ve got it. Yes, there are the occasional dogs, inclement weather or the gloom of night, but these inconveniences pale in comparison to the would-be rapists, bigots and crazed preachers on the trail for Cussy Mary Carter in Kim Michele Richardson’s impassioned new novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.
A courier for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famed Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project, Cussy is tasked with delivering library books over treacherous paths to impoverished hill folk, rural farmers and coal miners who toil in the Appalachian Mountains during the Great Depression. Cussy, 19, who makes her deliveries on the back of her faithful pack mule, considers her job a necessary one and part of “a respectable life” despite her father’s protestations. Cussy is one of the last of her kind, a blue-skinned woman (resulting from a real-life genetic blood disorder called methemoglobinemia), and so Pa wants her safe. He’d rather see her married off so she’ll have someone to take care of her when he no longer can. He even arranges such a marriage, only for her husband to die from an apparent heart attack while raping her.
Freed of the marriage she didn’t want, Cussy returns to her true passion in her old job of traveling librarian. For many, her visits are more than welcome, and the books she brings offer hope for brighter days, an escape from their daily doldrums and a singular connection to the outside world. But there are also those who distrust both the books she brings—some women complain that “she’s carrying dirty books up them rocks”—and her mysterious blue hue. And there are the aforementioned threats along the trail itself, including Pastor Frazier, the unstable cousin of her late husband, who fears she’s delivering the word of Satan. But Cussy’s strong will and commitment drive her forward.
Richardson has penned an emotionally moving and fascinating story about the power of literacy over bigotry, hatred and fear.