Cussy Mary is a book woman for her tiny hill country town in rural Kentucky. She packs up books, magazines, and newspapers donated from major metropolitan cities and takes them to her patrons on her route as a part of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. She is largely well-liked and respected for the work she does and the opportunities she brings to an often ignored community through education and reading. She’s also blue. Not metaphorically sad and down. She has blue skin caused by a skin condition. So does her dad and so did her mom. They’re blue and, as such, treated as ‘colored’ people in Kentucky. Some people in her community do their best to ignore her skin color while others treat her less-than barring her from social groups and public spaces. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek follows Cussy Mary as she tries to find her place in her community and come into her own power and self-acceptance.
I really enjoyed this book (the ending notwithstanding, but we’ll get to that later). Richardson beautifully captures the beauty of the hill country landscape of rural Kentucky and the relationship that poor people have with the land. Richardson is never condescending towards her characters nor does she pity them. She presents the stark reality of what it was like to be poor in the rural South during the Great Depression: the struggles, the prejudices, the ingenuity, the hopes, the fears, the triumphs great and small, everything. Even the dialects are written very well. Cussy Mary is educated and well read yet still speaks in a Southern dialect with its own vocabulary and syntax; as a Southerner myself who unlearned his accent to avoid stereotypes, I very much enjoyed the detail and respect given to dialect in this book and not using dialect as a measure of one’s intelligence.
But then there’s the ending. This ending came out of left field and smacked me in the head. There is such an intense tone shift that at first I thought I missed something. I will try to keep things as spoiler free as I can, but tread carefully. Firstly, despite there being a Black character and the main white character being considered “colored”, Richardson avoided using the n-word until the very end when a Hard-R is thrown out against a character when she is in a very vulnerable position. Secondly, there is violence that is described that had also been avoided up until this point (lengthy descriptions of violence, not violence itself). Finally, characters who had been mean or indifferent before became outright cruel. It was all very jarring, and maybe that was the intention, but I can’t shake the feeling that this scene was shoehorned in as a means to generate an ending where there wasn’t one. It simply doesn’t gel with the rest of the novel.