I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but I ended up finding it both fascinating and moving. I knew it was about a true-life group of people in the Appalachians with blue skin, and it was also about the historic Packhorse Librarians, women who delivered library books on horseback to families in the mountains. I thought it was going to be nonfiction, but it’s a historical novel. I listened to the audiobook, read by Katie Schorr (who also narrated The Hating Game). This is a book with a lot of dialect, so listening to it was helpful.
The book takes place in 1936 in Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. A young woman, Cussy Mary Carter, is one of the Blue People – in fact she believes she’s the last of their kind. The Blue People are hated, feared, and scorned by nearly everyone living in the area. To some, she’s the devil, and to others, she’s “colored.” And yet she spends her days riding through dangerous mountains on the back of a mule, just to give families their only chance to borrow a magazine, novel, or a children’s book. She tries to instill in the families on her route a love of reading, even teaching some of them basic reading skills.
Her mother is dead, her father works a dangerous job in the mines – particularly dangerous because he’s a labor organizer as well. She has no other family and most of the time, not enough to eat. But she loves her job as a Packhorse librarian.
I loved the way Richardson shows in this story the power that a few books can have on a struggling family. For these very isolated people, reading is a window to the rest of the world. It’s a way for them to connect with each other. The people on Cussy Mary’s route all have different dreams, whether it’s fighting fires, getting married, baking a pie, or educating their child. And for each of these families she picks out a magazine or book that may help them get there. In her free time she creates scrapbooks that help the neighbors share medical lore, recipes, and household tips. By creating and sharing these scrapbooks, she helps to build a community across neighbors. When a father becomes angry that his kids are too distracted by books and don’t finish their chores, she convinces him to let the kids read Boy Scout guides about fishing and hunting and knot-tying.
I’ve always believed that books can change people’s lives, and that everyone should have access to reading materials. I worked for many years on a program that did just that. So this part of the story was really inspiring.
The other primary aspect of the story is racism and prejudice, and again, Richardson tells a powerful story. Particularly interesting is when Cussy Mary and her father have to grapple with whether the blue of their skin is a medical condition or just who they are. Can it be changed? And if it could, would it change who they are, or how people treat them? Unfortunately, there are some truly horrible scenes in this book about people’s hatred of those who are different. The Blue People may be unusual, but sadly, the way they are treated is not unusual at all.
Richardson explains at the end of the book that she interviewed a number of families in Kentucky and also spoke to medical researchers, as well as doing extensive research on the Packhorse Librarian program. The author lives in Kentucky, and gives this book a very strong sense of place. She set the book in the 30’s because that program was part of the New Deal, a way to alleviate the extreme poverty of the area by helping people get jobs that would also address community needs. It clearly helped women who had no other family support and couldn’t apply for most jobs.
Richardson explains that she had to take some liberties with the timeline, because the medical research she discusses in the book didn’t actually occur until years later. I do appreciate when authors explain why they make changes in historical narratives.
The book does start off a bit slow; the first third almost felt like a string of anecdotes rather than a cohesive story. Readers who aren’t as obsessed with books and reading as I am may find the pace a bit frustrating. It does pick up though, and I’m glad I stayed with it. This was a moving story that felt sincere but never melodramatic or overstated. The poverty, hunger, and prejudice felt very real, as did the warmth and kindness that some of the characters showed each other during very hard times.