“To be wilded. Have a wilded heart in this black-treed land full of wilded creatures. There were notches in these hills were a stranger wouldn’t tread, would not venture-the needle-eyed coves and skinny blinds behind rocks, the strangling parts of the blackened-green hills-but Angeline and hillfolk here were wilded and not afraid. And I longed to lift bare feet onto ancient paths and be wilded once again.”
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is set in Troublesome, Kentucky, an Appalachian Community, in the 1930s. The story follows Packhorse Librarian Cussy Mary (aka Bluet), coal miner’s daughter and one of the legendary blue people of Kentucky. Cussy Mary struggles for acceptance in her conservative and superstitious hometown. Though a Troublesome native, she is viewed through the same suspicious lens as any minority of the region.
Cussy Mary’s father works long hours on night shift in the mines, returning covered in black dust and already suffering from what appears to be black lung, a result of inhaling the coal dust underground and an affliction that coal miner’s still battle today.
Cussy Mary and her father are unique to the setting for their blue skin color, caused by a congenital blood condition. This is based on the blue Fugates of Kentucky, a well known legend to the region.
Back to the story itself, I wasn’t sure I would like this book. Being from the region I am always wary of stories that try to portray the truth of life here. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek deals with some difficult subject matter, the treatment of minorities in the region, subjugation of women, socioeconomic conditions, and cultural shortcomings. The author handles all of this with a great deal of honesty but also respect to the people who remain here.
Cussy Mary, a blue, is treated as a “colored” meaning she is held to the laws of segregation and miscegenation of the time. She is cautious, afraid to touch others and often chided for assuming she is equal to the whites around her. She is humble but eager to be accepted even by those that treat her terribly. Her greatest joy is bringing literacy to her people (an astounding act of rebellion considering them her people even though over half think of her as their inferior). The book reckons with the hypocrisy of a proud, but starving and close-knit but ostracizing community.
The writing is lyrical. More poetry than prose sometimes. That may be off putting to some but if so then literary fiction isn’t really for you anyway. This book is a bittersweet tale of overcoming hardship and bearing witness to tragedy.