Well, let’s see–horses and books, horses and libraries, a librarian on horseback–take your pick! Add to it, the WPA, injustice, and the hollers of Kentucky, and well, I’m in!
The Appalachian counties are in the eastern end of Kentucky, boardering Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee
Cussy Mary Carter is a “Blue,” a person with a rare condition that turns her skin blue. In Appalachian Kentucky in the 1930’s such a person was seen as “colored” or “Negro,” and subject to the former border state’s segregation laws. FDR’s New Deal brought a lot of new thinking and new programs to this area, among them the Packhorse Librarians. Cussy Mary is one of the great horse-riding book women of this program.
Her life in the area of Troublesome Creek illustrates why the New Deal wasn’t just the boondoggle its critics labeled it. Daily Cussy May sees the unfairness of life–of children dying of pellagra, “The Kentucky Disease.” Her father, a coal miner, works in unsafe, unhealthy conditions, and is dying of black lung disease. He and his fellow miners are kept in debt by the company store and the script miners are paid in to keep them from going elsewhere. Unions for miners are in their infancy.
As Cussy Mary and her mule Junia, deliver the donated books and magazines to her widely scattered patrons, she sees first-hand what education, entertainment, and broader horizons can do for people. I loved the idea of the scrapbooks–collections of local recipes, household and health tips, sewing patterns and all manner of little items, tucked into books made by the librarians themselves. Perhaps she included her Mama’s recipe for Scripture Cake–I love the sound of that. A cake that teaches a child her Bible verses while she also learns to bake would be a good thing! What a great resource those scrapbooks would have been! In those days a Vertical File (file cabinet) at the library would have housed those. How wonderful to make the idea so easily transported.
Along the way, Cussy Mary agrees to be tested to see if a cure can be found for the blue skin problem. This takes her out of her word to exotic Lexington, Kentucky. I was pleased that the author included a note on her slight change of medical research dates to fit the story, but it all worked so well.
The violence of life in the hollers, the cruelty, the desperate poverty, were all some of the things the New Deal, progressive education, the TVA, and similar ideas were meant to rectify or improve. Sadly, most of the problems were still there when JFK and RFK toured Kentucky and West Virginia a generation later. In fact, some of the problems are still there.
Librarires came to this region via the WPA and, later, with various federal programs for educating the disadvantaged. Today there are prek–12 public schools, public universities and community colleges and libraries throughout even the poorest parts of Kentucky. The ravages today are not pellegra but lung cancer, black lung, and opiod addictions. All sorts of government programs try to help, but I doubt if any have brought the same personalized service and goodwill that the Pack Horse Librarians brought.
3.5 Stars–a good read
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
For More On the Pack Horse Librarians, or on traditional Appalachian life see:
That Book Womanby Heather Henson, is a children’s book on the program.
Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera Cleaver is a young person’s story that tells of a mountain family collecting medicinal plants.
Christy by Catherine Marhsall is the story of a young teacher at an Appalachian mission school. There was a television series based on this book several years ago.
The Foxfire Series are full of mountain folklore, crafts and what-have-you from Appalachia. I answered my first “professional” librarian reference question from these!