The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek was a slow read for me, but I am really glad I stuck with it! My book club chose it for our November read, as our theme was Historical Fiction. I had trouble getting into it at first, but once I crossed the halfway mark I couldn’t stop thinking about it! It’s a book you’ll feel satisfied with reading, and it’ll definitely give you a history lesson on Appalachia rural realities. Highly recommend giving it a read, and preferably before you read Jojo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars.
The Gist of It
Cussy Mary Carter is 19 years-old and unwed. She lives with her hardworking Pa in their modest one-room cabin deep in the holler, out of the way of the Troublesome Creek townsfolk. Cussy and her Pa are both Blues – their skin the color of a damselfly. They are also the last of the Blue Fugates, the famous blue-skinned people of Kentucky. Life’s hard for Blues, being neither White nor Black in the Appalachias where prejudice runs thick as blood. Cussy and her Pa try to make the best of their condition, but the townsfolk and hillfolk are distrustful of anyone who doesn’t look like them. Only the Doc seems keen on befriending them. It’s the 1936 and poverty runs rampant in the Kaintuck hills. Pa scrabbles a living working as a coal miner for the Company. Cussy – called Bluet, is a packhorse librarian for the WPA, delivering books and reading to the remote hillfolk, many of whom can’t read the books for themselves. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek follows Bluet as she makes her way along her treacherous book route with her trusty (and protective) mule Junia, bringing joy to her patrons and confronting dark truths hidden in those Appalachia hills.
Let’s Talk About It
I thought The Book Woman would be a light hearted read about the town librarian, possibly even a sweet romance. It was decidedly the opposite. There is a surprising amount of violence towards the women characters, which I was not prepared for. (Trigger warning: sexual assault, assault, and domestic violence.) While it is not overly graphic in description [thankfully it leaves most of that to your imagination], it is there and gives off a permeating anxiety throughout the novel. The violence coupled with the portrait of rural suffering gives The Book Woman a very heavy hand. This book is sad, there’s no way around it. Bluet is a bright spot, but my heart breaks for her. She manages to be so kind and strong for her Pa and patrons, despite the darknesses surrounding them and her own personal burdens. For every one good thing that happens, there seems to be two bad things.
I initially thought it was hard to get into, and I think this is because its written in dialect. It took a while to get the hang of, but the dialect lends to the characterization and adds to the historical value of the plot. One thing I did find annoying was the lack of a clear-cut plot line. There isn’t really a “story” – it’s more a “day in the life” travelogue detailing Bluet’s library route. The library patrons themselves are their own sidebar stories, which mesh along with Bluet’s personal story into a big patchwork quilt of hillfolk life. I found myself Googling so many things – the Blue Fugates, pellagra, the WPA to name a few. By the end I had tears, as I felt so invested in the wellbeing of Bluet’s patrons.
The ending was sort-of a plot twist. I feel like there could be a sequel as there’s definitely more to Bluet’s story, but I’ll leave it at that. I say sort-of a plot twist because the end comes as a series of events. Some of it I expected because there was plenty of foreshadowing, some things felt like a slap in the face and left me feeling angry, and a couple things totally threw me off. I highly recommend paying close attention to the opening scene!
“So I Heard it’s like The Giver of Stars?”
There is A LOT of controversy surrounding this book and Jojo Moyes’ new novel The Giver of Stars. Both are about the pack horse librarians who are little-known historical figures, both take place in rural Kentucky, and both have strong female heroines. Supposedly the plot and dialogue are also uncannily similar. The main difference is that Bluet is an Blue Fugate, while Moyes’ lead is an English woman who immigrated to America. Now, I haven’t read The Giver of Stars yet so I can’t speak to this too much, but BuzzFeed has a really excellent article that gives a deep dive into the controversy. (Some of the similarities are just too unreal sounding.)
I’m angry at the possibility that Moyes plagiarized Richardson because Moyes is best-selling author, so of course her novel is going to get more press and reach more people. Giver of Stars has already landed a movie deal! It was Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club Pick for November 2019! It feels so unfair…I imagine Richardson must feel the way Bluet does about Harriet (her librarian supervisor).
Meanwhile, this opens up a lot of questions. Like, if Moyes’ did rip off this book – what about all her other famous novels? What’s to say she didn’t rip off those too! And what about the 2001 novel Down Cut Shin Creek that was available on Amazon way before either of these? Did both authors rip off this one? And lastly, does it really even matter since both books are getting rave reviews? This Jezebel article is interesting food for thought.
I only hope one day we’ll get a real answer. Until then, I’m 194 on hold at the library for Giver of Stars.
Did you read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek? What about The Giver of Stars? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!