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It’s been a weird year, and many of us have looked for ways to spend our lost socializing time more enjoyably. During this pandemic, I’ve found that books offered a wonderful respite from reality.

But a few books do more. “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” is just one of those reads. The title of the book didn’t grab me, but since the book was suggested by my book group, I started reading it without bothering to research background information or what others said about the book.

The novel, set in eastern Kentucky in the mid 1930s to early 1940s, is inspired by real events. It offers an intriguing story line, but more importantly messages about prejudice, ignorance, caring, poverty, ingenuity, hunger, pride in hard work and coal mining in Appalachia.

Spoiler alert! Here are a few of the highlights of the book. The main character in the story, a young woman, Cussy Mary, has blue skin. She, therefore, in the 1930s is classified as “colored.” She’s not African American, black or brown, but blue. Initially, I thought the author was simply trying to make a point about discrimination based on race and therefore, introduced a blue-skinned person.

But that’s not the case. There is a rare hereditary mutation of a recessive gene, “methemoglobinemia,” that reduces a person’s ability to carry oxygenated blood and causes skin to turn blue. Medication can cure the problem and make the skin appear normally white, but the medication must be continued indefinitely and can cause physical discomfort.

But there’s much more to this book than blue skin. Cussy, a name attributed to her family’s French background, is a book woman, or a traveling librarian. Book women brought books and information to an estimated 600,000 isolated residents in 30 eastern Kentucky counties via the Kentucky Pack Horse Program, a part of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) to alleviate poverty during and following the Great Depression.

The book women rode for miles on horses and mules through rough terrain in all kinds of weather to bring every kind of printed material to all age groups. They encountered families affected by poverty, malnutrition, lack of medical care, prejudice and isolation, but also those displaying resourcefulness, hard work, support and friendship.

Reports say that blue-skinned people were first observed in Kentucky in the Fugate family. They trace this back to Martin Fugate, a young Frenchman who, in about 1820, claimed a land grant on Troublesome Creek, a very rural area in eastern Kentucky. Martin married a local white woman with red hair. They had seven children; four had blue skin. Both Martin and his wife had the recessive gene.

The author, Kim Michele Richardson, reported that she grew up very poor, spent the first decade of her life in a Kentucky orphanage, then a foster home and was homeless at age 14. Even though there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, take a few hours to read this remarkable book that offers important and informative messages about people in Appalachia.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist and a regular contributor to the Herald-Dispatch opinion page. Her email address is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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