Tag Archives: discrimination

“The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” by Kim Michelle Richardson

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: A Novel by [Kim Michele Richardson]

I loved this book! For starters, it has a stunning setting, beautifully described – remotest Kentucky, hilly and wild. The story takes place during the Great Depression. 

The “book woman” of the title, Cussy Mary Carter, is part of a tiny and persecuted minority, the blue-skinned people of Kentucky. Victims of an unknown genetic disorder, they suffered persecution because people feared that their strange condition was contagious. Racially, blue people were classified as “colored”.

Cussy Mary’s family is desperately poor. Her father is a coal miner. After her mother dies, her father, trying to protect her, forces Cussy Mary into marriage to a violent, thuggish man who promptly dies.  Cussy Mary takes advantage of a New Deal program called the Pack Horse Library Project to earn a much needed salary and satisfy her love of books and reading. She carries books, magazines and even “scrapbooks” to isolated homes and schools, where children and most adults are avidly hungry for the printed word.

Improbably, The Book Woman has an animal as a major character. Cussy Mary inherits a mule she names Junia, that had been starved and beaten by her deceased husband. Nursed back to good health, Junia trusts only Cussy Mary, tolerates women and children and simply HATES men, kicking and biting them at any opportunity. We meet Junia in the first sentence of the book. Cussy Mary takes advantage of Junia’s acute senses and instincts, and together they survive shocking challenges.

Ultimately, Cussy Mary meets a man who sees beyond her obvious differentness and comes to love her. It’s a very bad time and place for the improbable pair. 

Amazon classifies The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek as historical fiction, but it could be grouped with action/adventure, as it moves very quickly. 

I read The Book Woman fast because the plot captivated me. When I went back over parts of it, I realized it is stunningly well written, crisp and passionate. Maybe this book will be recognized as literature.

I briefly searched on line for information on methemoglobinemia and the blue skinned people of Kentucky and learned that, contrary to what Cussy Mary thought, the “blues” did not die out, and now, in the age of genetic testing and internet genealogy, these people are finding one another and sharing family histories and memories. Most people who show the characteristic blue skin of methemoglobinemia are otherwise in normal health and live an average lifespan. Treatment is now available. Clusters of the people with the condition have been documented in Alaska and Ireland. The recessive (unexpressed) gene persists.

Eight pages of pictures and historical details about the Pack Horse Library Project complete this book. I recommend it without reservation.


Personal History – Another Epidemic in my Life, AIDS/HIV – COVID19 #8

When I wrote my earlier entry about epidemics, I didn’t mention AIDS, and if asked, I might have said that the AIDS epidemic had little direct impact on me. But upon reflection, I realized that, though my contact with it was largely through one person, the impact was major.

Bill T hired me for my first (professional) job. I was 23 years old and had a new MSci degree in Chemistry. That might sound like a stretch for a job with the title “Environmental Protection Specialist”, but the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts had left the country short of engineers, so the new Specialist title was created, open to anyone with a BS degree. Technically, I was overqualified (no one seemed to care). But more significant (and some people cared!), I was female. Engineering was a male dominated domain. The job I wanted was in a field office. I would inspect factories and institutions for air pollution sources, and investigate air quality complaints. Some potential employers would have discouraged me. Bill T didn’t.

Why did Bill give me a chance? Maybe because he was part of a different minority. He suffered from a chronic illness, hemophilia. In 1973, it was legal to discriminate against both women and the chronically ill. I’d already lost out on a well paid summer job because it was assumed to be unsafe for a woman to be in charge of a public recreational facility.

Bill T was working for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (in part) because the private sector didn’t hire anyone whose health care might become expensive.

Bill talked freely about the ways hemophilia (aka “bleeder’s disease”) complicated his life, expressing some surprise that he had survived into his 40s. His background blood level of clotting factor was low but survivable, but any minor injury could cause persistent bleeding. A transfusion of clotting factor would resolve a bleeding episode, but damage might remain. His knees were stiff from bleeding in the joint, and his gait was somewhat awkward. Bill was a popular supervisor and colleague, and his staff was somewhat protective of him. We walked at his pace, and there was usually someone near him, in case he stumbled or lost his balance. This wasn’t planned. It just happened.

Bill offset the expense of clotting factor by donating his plasma for research, as he carried an unusual antigen.

I left my job in Pennsylvania in 1975, keeping in touch with Bill at the occasional professional meeting. Around that time, AIDS emerged globally. In the US in 1981, it was documented in gay men in San Francisco. In 1982, it was determined to be associated with two other populations, hemophiliacs and Haitians. I began to wonder what had happened to Bill.

For hemophiliacs (dependent on blood products for survival), AIDS was a catastrophe. The population of hemophiliacs in the US (1980) was around 10,000, and it is estimated that more than 4,000 of them died. In 1987, techniques to make donor blood safe were implemented, and the death rate dropped.

What did happen to Bill? The last time I saw him was around 1985. We met at a professional society meeting. Almost the first thing he said to me was “I don’t have AIDS!” I was spared the awkwardness of asking. I lost track of him after that, and his name was far too common for me to track him now.

Maybe I’m stretching the point when I say I got an important professional break from a man whose own professional trajectory had been impacted by discrimination. But I know that getting that job wasn’t a sure thing, despite my qualifications. I was lucky. Thanks, Bill!

Maya Angelou – 1928 to 2014 – Rest in Peace

Nineteen years ago, on my birthday, my sister game me Phenomenal Woman, a little volume containing four of Maya Angelou’s most popular poems. The perfect gift from one woman to another!

That was not my first exposure to the author Maya Angelou. Fifteen years earlier, I had seen her in person, reading her poetry on a college campus. She read a poem I had spotted many years before that, in Seventeen magazine. I don’t know what it was called, but it described a young black woman who doesn’t know she is beautiful, because “dish water gives back no reflection”. How could I remember a line of poetry so long? Angelou was a writer of incredible skill!

She read another poem from which I still remember a fragment. It was a list of terms that can be added to the description of a woman’s skin beyond the term “black”. A list of descriptors, all positive. “Bubbling brown sugar” was one.

I don’t remember when I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I remember so many details. One of my favorite parts was what she wrote about the role religion played in her life as a young woman. (Maybe this was actually in her second autobiographical book.) She was rational and “modern” and probably would not have described herself as “religious”, but she could not stay away from church, drawn in particular to the music. She would go to church, be swept up in the beauty and emotion, and join the choir… Her husband was baffled when a choir robe was delivered or her church brethren came to call.

(I am not checking on these remembered details, and apologize for any inaccuracy.)

I wonder what Maya Angelou thought when the term “black”, so fiercely claimed and energetically transformed into a badge of honor by Angelou and her contemporaries, was superseded by “African American”. She was not a woman to fear change, but might she have felt a twinge of loss?

I’m not particularly sensitive to poetry, and I seldom seek it out, but Maya Angelou spoke to me in a way that was stunningly memorable. I love the pictures of her that are being displayed today, the pictures of her in her maturity. She was grand, elegant and eloquent. Rest in peace, respected author and elder.

“Orphan Train – a novel” by Christina Baker Kline

I read this because it was selected by the college where I work as the “common reading” for 2014. A copy will be given to each incoming Freshman. Some of these students will read it for their Freshman seminar. The entire college will be invited to hear the author speak. Some students may hear nothing more about it. (No one is willing to tell the faculty what they must include in a course, and there will never be a common reading that is universally popular.)

About half of the common readings are novels. There has been at least one anthology, one autobiography, a popular, semi-scientific approach to the supernatural, and a genuinely scientific book about the Mississippi River (Bayou Farewell). I think the common reading program is nine years old.

The plot? A girl who has spent much of her life in (low quality) foster care meets an old woman whose early years were also disrupted by suffering and grief. Each gains important insight.

So what are the good and bad points of this book for college Freshmen? Let me evaluate it against the four “pillars” of the college – global outlook, engagement, sustainability and learning. (How it pains me to see “learning” so marginalized!) Let’s see, on a scale of 1 to 5…

  • Globalization – 3 points. Immigration (Ireland to USA) is a major feature, as well as migration (involuntary) within the US.
  • Engagement – 1 point. There’s a social worker. Aren’t they automatically “engaged”? One of the protagonists is doing community service in order to avoid a criminal charge for theft.
  • Sustainability – 0. It’s not there. (I didn’t miss it.)
  • Learning – 4 points. Both protagonists love books and reading. The young woman “finds” herself academically as she is finishing high school. The old woman professes to be indifferent to the “information superhighway”, then plunges in with cheerful enthusiasm – starts shopping on line and using Facebook. Maybe 5 points for learning!

All that said, I give the book a B-. I like more development of character. I found the structure, skipping back and forth between two plot lines, distracting. I think college students should be offered something more challenging. This is too close to being a standard “feel good” book. But (by way of redemption) there’s one plot twist that surprised me. A child (I won’t tell you whose) is given up for adoption. I wonder how students will react to that?