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Review: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

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My Interest

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!

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The Appalachian counties are in the eastern end of Kentucky, boardering Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee

The Story

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.

My Thoughts

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.

My Verdict

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:

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Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky by Kathi Appelt, is a book for any age. My review is here.

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That Book Womanby Heather Henson, is a children’s book on the program.

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Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera Cleaver is a young person’s story that tells of a mountain family collecting medicinal plants.

 

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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.

 

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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!

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National Library Week: Librarians on Horseback

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In some places the terrain is so awful that people can’t really go to the library. So today, and in times past, the library has often come on horseback. Today, we’re looking at two such library services.

The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky

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In Appalachian Eastern Kentucky, where the coal mines were, people often lived in places barely accessible by any means but walking. An area of grinding, hard lives and intense poverty, people often had no jobs to go to in the 1930s while the Depression raged. The WPA, the great public works program of the Roosevelt years, funded traveling libraries in many areas. In Eastern Kentucky, the lady librarians visited their patrons on pack horses.

Though a great many people in that region had never been to school and couldn’t read, they still loved getting books and magazines with lots of photos and illustrations to lighten their days. Schools in the area were lucky to have books at all, so the “book lady” brought reference books for lessons as well as books for the children to read.

The ladies’ days were long and dangerous but the rewards were immense. Because this was before the modern welfare system, people were often suspicious of “charity” like the WPA. Many folks insisted on giving the librarian something so that it was an equal exchange. Old family recipes and family quilt patterns were among some of the “gifts” given to the librarians. What a sweet legacy.

This has to be one of the most civic-minded of all WPA programs. For it brought hope, encouragement, education and pleasure to an area starved for just about every human need.

I liked, too, that the book gives credit to Lorena Hickock, whose relationship with crusading First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the subject of another book I recently reviewed–Loving Eleanor. And,  I found this book while looking for another book by its author, Kathi Appelt, when I did my Nature Women post last month for Women’s History Month. She also wrote Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers  a book I love.

What saddens me is that this is a such an amazing book to use in a Kentucky state history in elementary school, but due to Common Core it likely isn’t being used. Too bad. There are surely still elderly people in the area that the children could interview for oral history on their memories of this program. Losing local control of curriculum has cost our children a lot of great lessons.

I’m buying myself a copy of Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky to share some day with my future grandchildren who will likely be familiar enough with the area to enjoy it.

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Photo source: Putu Sayoga via New York Times LENS blog

This morning, an item from one of the New York Times’ blogs was in my Facebook feed and instantly caught my eye:

A Quixotic Mission: Indonesia’s Library on Horseback

What difference can one person make? A world of difference! Ridwan Sururi, and his horse, bring books to the residents of Central Java–an island that is part of the nation of Indonesia. Mr. Sururi previously worked taking care of horses and one of his clients, Nirwan Arsuka, gave him the books to start his traveling library. The photograph above, and the others in the story, were inspired interestingly enough,  by–what else today? A Facebook post on horseback librarians! The photographer then decided to tag along and record Mr. Sururi’s journey.

The program sounds like it was developed using Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky as its textbook! I loved every aspect of this project. People need hope and they need to dream and explore and imagine. Literacy must be encouraged in people of all ages and all walks of life. Books and magazines still have to provide that for many, many people where even WIFI cannot do the job. Thanks to Mr. of the New York Times Lens Blog for his great story today. Here is a link to the Quixotic Mission: Indonesia’s Library on Horseback.

When I served in Peace Corps in Malawi, people were starved for books and magazines. I ordered books from the National Library of Malawi which provided small traveling collections to just about anywhere that requested them. I also had long waiting list, scrupulously adhered to, for my Reader’s Digests and Catholic Digests my Dad’s cousin sent me as well as for any books I received from friends at home.  But how awesome if the four librarians in my Peace Corps class had been able to go to the most remote and poverty-stricken areas. How much greater the impact than to sit in a World Bank funded library used almost elusively (aside from my books and magazines) by international scholars who could, if necessary, call their home institution for information. Other Peace Corps Volunteers, those working with the country’s credit union, had dirt bikes. Those would have given a new purpose to Iron Horses–a good and positive one at that.

All this week we are celebrating National Library Week. Each day will feature a different aspect of libraries and how they make our world a little better.