Tag Archives: Great Depression

“The Darling Dahlias Mysteries” by Susan Wittig Albert.

The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree
The first book in this series of nine novels

So far I’ve read two of these novels. I wasn’t at all certain that anything from the “cozy mystery” genre would work for me, but these books are great. Yes, chick lit. Yes, beach reading. Intelligent, lively beach reading!

To clarify, Darling is an imaginary small town in southern Alabama. The Darling Dahlias is a garden club with 12 members of varied ages. The series starts at the beginning of the Great Depression. Times are hard, and no one knows if improvement can be expected.

The Dahlias face a variety of (predictable) challenges and the occasional disruption of their quiet town by murder, embezzlement and organized crime. The local, two-person police force can’t always resolve these issues, but the Dahlias, thinking “outside the box” and using unconventional methods, have remarkable success. At the same time, they have fun and revel in mutual support. Darling is the (imaginary) small town we all wish we could live in!

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“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.

“English Creek” by Ivan Doig

English Creek (Montana Trilogy)

This is the novel I’ve been waiting for! I mean during this pandemic. I’ve wanted something to get lost in, something not too fraught, something to entertain and distract me. My Library had two of Doig’s many books, so I got this early work of fiction from 1984 and his final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom from 2015, the year Doig died.

English Creek is a coming-of-age story, unfolding in Montana at the end of the Great Depression. The first person narrator is Jick McCaskill, 14 years old, the younger of two boys whose father works for the US Forest Service, ranger and manager of a section of National Forest. Their mother, though cushioned from poverty by her husband’s steady employment, leads the hard and often anxious life of a prairie woman.

As summer unfolds, Jick recognizes that his family of four is changing. His brother rebels against a long-held, carefully laid plan that he should go to college and leaves to work at a nearby ranch for the season. Jick is unsettled. Events cause him to take on increasing responsibilities.

This “set up” of the plot took time, but I enjoyed it because the descriptions of people, land, animals and events were so vivid and meticulous. Two thirds of the way through the book, I realized SOMETHING big was going to happen, but I couldn’t imagine what.

Spoiler alert! I can’t resist sharing the nature of the emergency that slammed the McCaskill family. After weeks of dry heat, lightening started a wildfire that endangered Jick and his father and scores of firefighters.

The parallels with the current situation NOW in the American west are many. Doig writes in detail about fighting a forest fire with the limited resources available in 1939. I couldn’t stop reading.

At the same time, Jick struggles to learn about this family and the people around them. Some situations are clarified. Others remain secret. Just like real life. The narrative ends as World War II breaks out in Europe.

This would make a GREAT book club choice! The parallels to our present situation are many. What is the meaning of community? How does a family navigate change? What pieces of the past should be shared with a child, and when? How do humans live in an ecosystem?

This book reminds me of Badluck Way,. reviewed here., another coming-of-age story.

 

“Son of the Rough South – an Uncivil Memoir” by Karl Fleming

This book was a Christmas gift from my son, who knows what I like. He knows about my desire to understand the history I have lived through, especially the Sixties and the Civil Rights movement, and he knows I like biography and autobiography. He found this paperback in a used bookstore. (Publication date 2005, 418 pages + index, published by Perseus Books Group.)

That said… I had some trouble getting myself to READ this book. I was under the weather after Christmas (the classic Christmas cold) and didn’t feel strong enough to confront in detail the ugly truth about the American battle for desegregation. So I read slowly, taking chapters out of order.

I’m PROFOUNDLY glad I persisted! Son of the Rough South is an amazing piece of first person writing. Karl Fleming worked for Newsweek magazine, hired by their Atlanta bureau in 1961. He was a aggressive reporter, a skilled interviewer and an expert at “setting the scene” in order to catch the reader’s interest.

I’ve long recognized that people like me should be grateful for the adrenaline freaks among us. Who else is going to drive ambulances and work in the ER? I didn’t realize that a journalist may be part of the adrenaline crowd. Fleming covered some of the most appallingly dangerous, violent events of the southern Civil Rights struggle. His sympathies were entirely with the Black communities, but he reported as evenhandedly as he knew how. (Most) southern white police officers and political leaders hated his guts.

When Fleming moved to Los Angeles in 1966, he thought he was leaving the civil rights battle behind. But he wandered into Watts, the Black section of the city that exploded in May of that year, encountered a hostile crowd and was beaten almost to death. His skull was fractured, brain injured, jaws broken, life altered.

In the aftermath, Fleming was surprised to realize he did not feel anger towards the young Black men who assaulted him. To Fleming, IT WAS NOT ABOUT RACE. It was about power. He was always going to side with the underdog.

The account of Fleming’s adventures in the desegregating South would be enough to make this a good book, but he framed it with accounts of his childhood and later adulthood.

Fleming’s childhood was shaped by the awful poverty of the Great Depression. His widowed, ailing mother placed him and his half-sister in the Methodist Orphanage at Raleigh, North Carolina when Fleming was eight. Fleming’s account dissects his experience there, both negative and positive. In some ways, it was a model institution, in other ways a traumatic Dickensian nightmare. Anyone interested in the evolution child welfare policies should read this.

Many public figures of the Civil Rights movement show up in this book. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were of particular interest to me, and I was pleased that Fleming mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer and the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ.

All of this leaves me with the question, how did we end up where we are NOW, in 2016? What’s better, what’s worse, and what has been totally unexpected?

One thing that has changed is language. I’ve followed Fleming in using the term “Black”. Perhaps I should have used African American. Fleming quotes his sources saying everything from “colored” and “Negro” to “coon” and worse.

Son of the Rough South is well written, fast paced and highly informative. I recommend it unreservedly.