Thank goodness for book clubs. I might never have read this book if it hadn’t come to me for one of my postal book clubs, and that would have been a shame. A wonderful piece of historical fiction, with the emphasis on historical, which is where I like my emphasis.
What it’s about
From the Goodreads description:
In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky. Along her dangerous route, Cussy, known to the mountain folk as Bluet, confronts those suspicious of her damselfly-blue skin and the government’s new book program. She befriends hardscrabble and complex fellow Kentuckians, and is fiercely determined to bring comfort and joy, instill literacy, and give to those who have nothing, a bookly respite, a fleeting retreat to faraway lands.
This book also manages to touch on a whole lot of issues: poverty, racism, sexism, and marginalization, abuse, medicine, and more. The sort of book that makes you think, but also keeps you reading.
I had never before heard of the Blue People of Kentucky (namely, the Fugate family), nor of the Pack Horse Librarians, but this is the sort of fiction that sends me to google to research. And I love that.
Books like these are why I love historical fiction. While it’s true that I generally prefer fiction to nonfiction and like to read for pleasure and escape, I so enjoy a book that’s rooted in real-life history that can manage to educate while it entertains. The Book Woman is one of those books.
The cast of characters in this book is varied and lively. Cussy Carter is a fantastic, completely fleshed-out character. She’s flawed, honest, strong, smart, and vulnerable: determined to do what she loves despite all of the hardships that her skin color and her status in life put in her way. Cussy has some truly horrible experiences, and has a choice to make about the medical condition that causes her skin to be blue, but in the end, she remains confident in who she is. The backwoods Kentuckians along Cussy’s book route and two of her fellow librarians could have whole entire books written about them and I wouldn’t get bored. I’m so impressed with how well drawn all of the characters are, regardless of how impactful they are to the story. One of my favorite characters is Cussy’s mule, Junia. Go figure!
Even with everything that’s going on with this book, it’s also about books, reading, and librarians. I absolutely adored Cussy’s devotion to her route and making sure that her people had things to read that would appeal to them. I especially loved the way that we get to see some of these poor, starving, struggling people cling to and grow into a love of reading. This quote stuck with me:
“Bring me new words when we meet again so I know the book and brain ain’t gathering dust.”
It’s very clear from reading The Book Woman and the author’s notes about it that this book is extremely well researched and was a labor of love for Richardson. Her writing is lovely and descriptive and the language feels authentic and accessible. This isn’t really a happy book most of the time, and there are lots of heartbreaking and difficult-to-read sections. I laughed a little, I cried a lot more than I expected. There is no fairytale ending here, but I was still left feeling hopeful and content.
I read most of the book in print, and highly recommend getting the physical books for the historical photos included by the author, but I also listened to about 30% on audio… I really didn’t want to stop reading and had a lot of busy work to do, so I switched to Audible. The audiobook is very well done—Katie Schorr’s narration and accent are awesome.
I enthusiastically recommend this book to those who enjoy historical fiction, books about loving books, and don’t mind just a little bit of romance.
One final note: there are accusations of plagiarism on the part of Jojo Moyes for her book The Giver of Stars, which is also about the Pack Horse Librarians and came out within a year of Book Woman. While it’s definitely not plagiarism when multiple authors write about the same historical events in their novels, some of the specific examples that I’ve read about these two books really have nothing to do with the actual history, and pertain only to things the authors added (thereby making their books historical fiction). A link to an article about the plagiarism claims is here. Personally, I have no plans to read Moyes’ book, but if you’ve read both books and care to share your thoughts, I would love to hear them.
Until next time.