Before there were bookmobiles, there were pack horse librarians. These dedicated women and a few men rode horses and mules to the most remote Appalachian locations during the Great Depression, braving uncleared trails, wild animals and resistant attitudes to provide reading materials to families and schools.
The Pack Horse Library Project, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and 1935 Works Projects Administration, brought hope to the young and old alike who wanted to learn and improve their situation.
Librarians rode their trails at least twice a month and usually covered 100 to 120 miles each trip. They were required to provide their own mounts and earned a mere $28 per month, around $500 in today’s economy. Because the donated materials they carried had to last as long as possible, librarians were also skilled in repairing and rebinding books.
Kentuckian Kim Michele Richardson combines a historical glimpse into pack horse librarian life with a look at the phenomenon known as the blue-skinned people of Kentucky in her novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, (Sourcebooks Landmark, $15.99).
Cussy Mary Carter, the story’s heroine, is one of the few remaining Blues, a family line whose descendants suffer from methemoglobinemia, a genetic enzyme deficiency that produces a blue tint to the skin. Despite prejudices and fear, she loyally serves the patrons on her pack horse route, her love of books overriding the rejection that comes with every racist remark or exclusion from town events.
When the local doctor, hungry to research her condition, suggests he can cure Cussy Mary, she hopes for a full life, acceptance and an escape from constant threat. Cussy Mary learns who sees her sacrifices and giving heart and who simply sees a color.
Richardson’s book was named a Forbes Best Historical Novel. Asked what she hopes readers take away from the story, she replies, “That poverty and marginalization are not so much economics or politics or societal issues as much as human issues that are best grappled with by reaching deep into the lives of those suffering them.”