For its 15th anniversary title, Roswell Reads, the annual community literary initiative sponsored in part by local libraries, made a topical selection. “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek,” by Kim Michele Richardson, is a novel concerning a real library program begun in rural Appalachian Kentucky during the Great Depression.
From her home in the Bluegrass State, Richardson discussed the Pack Horse Library Project of the 1930s and ’40s, as well as her book’s other nonfiction inspiration — the Blue People of Kentucky. Commonly called Blues, the blue people of Kentucky were real people in eastern Kentucky — specifically in the area of Troublesome Creek — who were carriers of a genetic trait that gives sufferers blue-tinged skin. These will be among the topics Richardson will address during the Roswell Reads writing workshop March 13 and literary luncheon March 14. Details for both can be found at forl.net/roswell-reads.
“The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” is your fourth novel and fifth book. All five titles, including your bestselling memoir, “The Unbreakable Child,” are set in your home state of Kentucky. What has such geographic literary focus taught you about writing, as well as about Kentucky?
Kentuckians are very complex and proud, and the land is brutal and beautiful — full of folklore, mysteries, secrets and very rich history to draw on. I have a great love for my people, so it’s a joy to tell their stories as if I’m sitting across my kitchen table telling it to you. My biggest focus when writing is to present the stories and people honestly. This has been my greatest privilege. And there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t feel a tremendous honor for the opportunity to finally introduce these fierce, female pack horse librarians, and the blue people from my home state of Kentucky.
The sponsors of Roswell Reads, which is celebrating its 15th year, include the Fulton County Library system, Roswell’s two libraries and friends groups at both libraries. Undoubtedly, your audiences will be filled with library workers and/or lovers. What about the Pack Horse Library Project remains relevant nearly 100 years later?
I grew up under the grinding heels of poverty, spending my first decade in a rural Kentucky orphanage and then on to foster care, and beyond, to finding myself homeless at age 14. As a foster child, I remember going to my first library one lonely summer and checking out a book. The librarian sized me up and then quietly said, “Only one? You look smarter than a one-book read, and I bet we can find you more than just one.” She reached under her counter, snapped open a folded, brown paper sack, handed it to me and then marched me over to shelves filled with glorious books. I was shocked that I could even get more than one book, much less a bag full of precious books, and I was moved by her compassion, kindness and wisdom. Librarians are lifelines for so many, giving us powerful resources to help us become empowered.
While your earlier works have all won awards and praise, “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” has triggered a cascade of honors, including being named one of Oprah’s Buzziest Books for May 2019. During your many promotional events throughout the South and beyond, what about the novel seems to resonate so with readers?
The strong resonation with many seems to be that poverty and marginalization are not so much economics or politics or societal issues as much as human issues, which are best grappled with by reaching deep into the lives of those suffering them. And although I know a single book won’t change the world, if I’ve dropped seeds of courage, empathy and kindness into this sometimes tumultuous and charged world as we know it today, that’s all I could ever hope.
Despite the most obvious difference between you and your protagonist — Cussy is a Blue — are there similarities?
I can relate to marginalized people and have much empathy for Cussy and her family and the people of eastern Kentucky — anyone who has faced or faces prejudices and hardship. It’s easy to feel pain deeply, particularly if you’ve gone through hardships in your own life.
Have you started your next book? If so, what can you tell us about it?
I’m into research and working on something that’s too early to reveal, but I can say that it is again set in Kentucky and will be unique, and have an intriguing and very colorful cast of characters.
Contributing journalist Kathy Des Jardins Cioffi, owner of Johns Creek’s KRC Communications. Connect with her at krccom.com.