I recently had the good fortune of joining one of the library’s book clubs in reading “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” by Kim Michele Richardson. I had heard of the novel, it had been on the bestseller lists a while back, but had never picked it up. I am so glad I finally did!
In 1936, Cussy Mary Carter lived in eastern Kentucky at her dad’s cabin in the cove, hidden away in the Kentucky mountains. Her mother had passed, and her dad was a poor miner who was desperate to get her married off to live a proper life.
Cussy Mary was happy where she was. She enjoyed taking care of her father, and at 19 years old had recently applied to Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration to be a pack horse librarian. The assignment seemed so fulfilling, travel by horse or mule to bring reading material to the people living up in the hills, unable to regularly come to town. What Cussy Mary did not say on her application was that she was “colored.” And by that, we mean blue.
Based on a true story, the novel changes a few facts around but focuses on the small Appalachian population of blue people living primarily in Kentucky, but occasionally in other central eastern states.
Cussy Mary had a great-grandfather who came from France with his wife and settled in Troublesome Creek, Ky. Her ancestor had a rare condition causing his skin to look blue. His wife unknowingly carried the recessive gene, and then it was passed down through the generations. Cussy Mary and her father are “Blues.”
The devastatingly poor people up in the hills don’t care about her color. It’s post-depression, and everyone is hungry. Hungry for food, and hungry for learning. The main occupation in the area is mining for a corrupt organization called “The Company.”
Many of the people can’t read, but Cussy Mary travels in harsh conditions to bring them magazines, old discarded school books, scrapbooks and the occasional mail.
Once a week, she travels into town to gather her pay and work at the library center where the staff exchanges worn books, newspapers and pamphlets for their clientele to look at. After the high of bringing the oppressed some happiness and anticipation with her visits, she dreads heading into town. People stare at her, call her names and pull away as if she’s contagious. Despite it all, Cussy Mary is always respectful, bright and hopeful.
When a local doctor takes an interest in Cussy Mary’s blue heritage, she and her father argue over whether they should let the doctor investigate her condition. Eventually, circumstances lead her to yearn for a normal “white life.” Between doctors visits, vindictive townspeople and dangerous trails, Cussy Mary’s life becomes more complicated as she is torn between hiding away in the mountains and living life to the fullest.
I found the novel to be incredibly thought-provoking, and it had a lot of subtle nuances about racism, elitism, economic woes that touched on much of what our country is going through today.
Cussy Mary’s story is an important one and would serve as an igniter in book clubs anywhere. It’s about helping the needy, the trustworthiness of science, blatant racism and societal mores.
As I mentioned, this historical novel is based on actual events. Martin Fugate settled in eastern Kentucky in 1820. He had the genetic condition called methemoglobinemia, which was passed down through a recessive gene and blossomed through intermarriage.
Back in those days, the mountain people had very little means of transportation and kept to themselves. As a result, they often married cousins or other relatives. This caused the Blue gene to travel from one generation to the next.
The type of hemoglobin in this disorder is unable to carry oxygen, and so the people can’t release it effectively to body tissues. Their lips are purple, the skin looks blue and the blood is “chocolate colored” because it is not oxygenated.
Somewhat of a cure was discovered, which would temporarily fade the blue so that the person appeared white. The medicine had a number of unpleasant side effects, and eventually the blue would return.
The interbreeding faded as Hazard grew, transportation became more easily accessible, and the marital prospects increased. The last “known” blue Fugate descendant was born in 1975. It was reported that his deep blue skin lightened as he grew into adulthood, then darkened again as he continued to age.
If you’re interested in more information, there are a number of articles and books written about the people known as the “Blue Fugates.” We’ll be happy to help you find them!
Next month, the Cover-to-Cover Book Club will be reading “The Trial of Lizzie Borden” by Cara Robertson. Join our Zoom meeting by registering on our webpage, champaign.org.