I moderate my library's Online Book Club and our pick this quarter was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. From what we could glean on Goodreads and Amazon, the novel was about a traveling packhorse librarian in the 1930s who loved bringing her patrons the perfect book. I'm not going to lie; part of the reason I leaned toward this selection was the potential for a PR opportunity. I love that librarians today take the same amount of pride in choosing materials for patrons and I hoped that our Online Book Club members would recognize this subliminal (or not so subliminal) messaging. I could envision the Facebook comments: Thank you, Book Women of Ouachita Parish, for picking the perfect book for me during quarantine!
But what made this librarian different from her cohorts of the 30s and of today was the color of her skin. Book Woman Cussy Carter was not white. She was not Black. She had blue skin. At first I thought this was some sort of fantasy, magical realism-esque subplot, but soon discovered the main character was actually based off the real Blue People of Kentucky. Her color was not a subplot. The fact that she was blue played a huge role in the novel.
So, I downloaded the eAudiobook on the Hoopla app using my library card, taking mental notes of questions to ask the book club later.
Cussy rides her mule up and down Appalachia, delivering books to the poorest and hungriest and opening doors with literacy. Cussy is labeled as “colored” by others, and her blue skin is grouped together with anyone else who does not have white skin. Despite prejudice, she works hard on the trail for work and at home taking care of her coal mining blue father. When the curious local doctor conducts a series of painful tests, he discovers she simply has a medical condition with a simple, temporary cure. With her new white skin, acceptance into society doesn’t come as easily as she thought it would. Based on the true story of Blue People of Kentucky and the WPA’s pack horse librarian program, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek discusses race, education, faith and poverty. It analyzes beauty, belonging and belief in a heartwarming and at times, heart wrenching way. While the book teetered toward melodrama in its third act, it was still a thoroughly enjoyable book and I’m glad I read it.
What made this book so special was its careful, complex and pointed discussion of race. While Cussy is not Black, she is still labeled as "colored." She does not have access to certain bathrooms or community dances or churches or even the opportunity to fantasize about loving someone who could love her back. The lingering words of her father ring in the background; she must lay low or she'll get hurt because of her skin... or worse. Blues and Blacks were killed because of their skin in these hills.
When she takes her newfound medicine, Cussy quickly becomes obsessed with her whiteness. Her few friends call her beautiful. She takes pride in her friends' positive and shocking reactions. She often looks in the mirror, admiring her pale skin. Her vanity - her whiteness - becomes the most important part of her life.
But she hates the skin she was born in, not just because white is considered most beautiful, but also because of the dangerous lynchings others threaten. Blue is considered ugly, bruised and shameful. The prejudiced and hateful people told her lies: She was cursed; she was born of the devil; she was a heathen; she wasn't allowed to worship a good God, because a righteous God would only give someone a birth defect if that person or his or her parents were sinners. When Cussy turns white, she hopes that others will soon accept her because she is like them. To the surprise of no one except our leading librarian, the people who hadn't accepted her when she was blue, didn't accept her when she was white.
Before reading this book, I would say the Fugate family suffered from the medical condition methemoglobinemia. But now, I must change my verb choice. All research shows that the congenital version of this disease has no side affects other than blue skin and a darker colored blood. The family lived long lives, without physical pain other than that which was afflicted upon them from outsiders. Is having a skin color other than the norm considered a sufferable condition? Is being different, is being outside the Western standards of beauty, wrong? Of course not.
I loved what one of Cussy's patrons told her about her blue skin. Oren Taft - a soon-to-be Book Man - tells her that her skin reminded him of Picasso's Blue Lady that he had seen in one of her materials she had brought him on her route. Cussy ponders:
"The more I thought about his Picasso Blue Lady, her fine color, the best color, the more I reckoned God wanted me to have it. If it was good enough for Him and the famous artist, it had to be enough for me.
Blue had to be enough for me, I vowed. The next morning, I looked into the mirror a little afraid. The white had quickly faded and the blue rose on my flesh, deepening, bruising as I narrowed my eyes and whispered to my reflection, "This must be enough. I am enough."
I nearly whooped out loud when Cussy comes to this realization. Despite the lies the Enemy had told her, she still recognizes that God made her in His image and no matter what color her skin is, that it is enough. She still experiences heartache at the hands of evil men and women, but she literally becomes comfortable in her own skin.
I can't wait to discuss this book with our patrons, and I look forward to your thoughts.
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Danielle Kelley Tolbird
Surrounded by books by day, Tolbird works as the communications coordinator of her local library. She writes about her favorite books, faith in God and daily life.