I loved this book. Seriously. I’m giving it four stars, which I don’t often do.
Kim Michele Richardson has written a book that captures discrimination within a culture that’s rarely seen clearly by outsiders. Cussy Mary Carter and her father live in Troublesome Creek, Kentucky, surrounded by the hollers and mountains of the Appalachian Range. Times are especially rough in 1937, but Cussy Mary is lucky to make twenty-eight dollars a month delivering books to the people who live near and far from their Packhorse Library. Her father is a coal miner. They are both what the mountain people call “Blues.”
Richardson has done an incredible amount of research on Appalachian life, culture, and the true story of the “Kentucky Blue People.” I was interested in the way she describes the discrimination Cussy and her father experience, specifically because of racism against people of color and whether or not this directly relates. Cussy has a medical condition that causes her skin to be blue; there isn’t a blue race. In that way, the idea of racism doesn’t apply to Cussy. However, her experienced discrimination of being non-white and considered “colored” does. The fascinating thing about Cussy’s condition is the moral and very personal choice of whether or not to be cured, to “become white.” Her Black friend and fellow librarian, Queenie, of course, doesn’t have that choice.
All of this is happening with the backdrop of the rugged Kentucky mountains. Food is scarce while judgment weighs heavy in the pockets of those that can afford it. Cussy Mary has a tender heart and loves to see her patrons eager for their next loan. Along her delivery route, she meets a number of characters including Angeline, a young soon-to-be mother who wants to be able to read to her child; Devil John, a moonshiner who doesn’t want his kids to become lazy reading books; Loretta, an old woman who is nearly blind, but enjoys Cussy’s visits. Cussy isn’t just a librarian. She’s a life-line for women looking for new recipes and sewing guides, a main-stay for the children of the only school for miles, and a delivery-person for those looking to pass letters to loved ones. She’s smart and clever and is always willing to give what little she has to someone with even less.
There are characters to love and characters to loathe. Richardson’s language is poetic in places. She writes, “She [Angeline] looked a little wild standing there, fierce, her tanned feet comfortable atop ancient knobby tree roots like the earth was her Cinderella slipper.” She buries these phrases like treasures, nestling them in among the descriptions of simple but hard Appalachian life. From beginning to end Richardson’s writing is strong and beautiful.
*Controversy Surrounding the similarities between The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and The Giver of Stars.
In the following paragraphs, I compare these two books. It’s mostly my opinion and contains SPOILERS. You can read my review of The Giver of Stars here.
There is an interesting article from Buzzfeed in which controversy is addressed. The article lists a number of plot and character similarities and I have linked to it to reduce redundancy. If you read the article, you’ll see a number of things:
- The two books were released within months of each other, Troublesome coming first.
- Proving plagiarism is difficult and tedious.
- No one owns history, but there are several fictional ideas that are oddly similar in the books.
- This controversy possibly highlights issues within the publishing industry.
For the record, I think Richardson got the short end of the stick. After reading both books, Richardson’s writing is superior, but the word is Moyes has a movie deal. Not only has Richardson written a well-formed story, it’s rich from beginning to end. Moyes is a good writer, but she doesn’t have the same grasp of language, character formation and growth, and metaphor. Richardson’s strength also lies in details. I don’t doubt that Moyes and/or her team did research, but she only used it in broad strokes. Richardson constantly uses particulars of Appalachian life such as the stones Loretta uses for her eye pain, roots and weeds for medicinal remedies, the courting candle, the coal Company’s stronghold and strangulation of the coal workers and their families, the hunger and disease. The pain of Henry’s death followed by Angeline and her husband was palpable in Troublesome. Richardson didn’t spare us from tragedy, a thing that helped shape the rocky terrain of the mountains. Moyes does capture life in the Kentucky hills in some ways. But if I’m choosing, I think Richardson does it better.
The two main characters in the books Cussy Mary (Troublesome) and Alice (Giver of Stars) are, fortunately for the authors, quite different. Each is seeking love, but their roads to finding it diverge. While Alice may show some change from the English flower to a grittier version of her former self, Cussy’s self-acceptance is far more important. We see Cussy’s inner struggle compared to Alice’s struggles which are, for the most part, a result of outside forces (she’s in a foreign country, her father-in-law is terrible, her husband isn’t attracted to her, she’s married and in love with another man, etc.). Cussy’s struggle with wanting to be white adds depth to the Packhorse Librarian storyline that Moyes is missing. Sadly, it is also connected to current events and the need for anti-racist reform.
I do find it suspicious that these two books were released so closely together and have as many similarities as they do. I’m hesitant to blame Moyes for this, though. It’s entirely possible for two authors to write about the same things. It happens all the time. What is disconcerting is how this was handled within the publishing industry. I’m basing this on what was reported in the Buzzfeed article and on some of what I know about the publishing industry. While publishers are not forthcoming to the general public, within publishing circles information about upcoming books, sales, author pitches, and the like are more likely to be common knowledge. I think it’s hard to believe that Moyes’ camp was unaware of Richardson’s book, especially with the distribution of galleys. I’m sure that Moyes was considering writing this book in 2017 as the article states, what wouldn’t surprise me is if her publisher asked her to speed it up because of Richardson’s book and, oh yeah, we need to compete so can you add these few things? It would also explain why Moyes’ book feels hurried in the second half.
This is all conjecture, of course. For writers like myself, it serves as a good reminder to keep trackable notes on ideas, to know copyright laws, and to stay true to my own work.