Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

Title:  The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
Author:  Kim Michele Richardson
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks. 2019. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1492691631 / 978-1492691631

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The librarian and her mule spotted it at the same time."

Favorite Quote:  "Being able to return to the books was a sanctuary for my heart. And a joy bolted free, lessening my own grievances, forgiving spent youth and dying dreams lost to a hard life, the hard land, and to folks' hard thoughts and partialities."

Methemoglobinemia is a big word! What, you might as, does it have to do with books and this story? Methemoglobinemia is a medical condition that can be genetic; a symptom is blue-colored skin. One of the most well-know documented cases of this condition is the Fugate family from Kentucky. This book, written by an author born and raised in that region, combines this history with the history of the Pack Horse Library Project. From 1935 until 1943, this Works Progress Administration program hired "book women" to travel by horse or mule through the Appalachians delivering books and other available reading materials to remote homes and school houses.

The main character Cussy Mary Carter is a book woman and one of the Blue People in the small town of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. Ultimately, Cussy's story is about prejudice, about being seen as "different," and about acceptance:

  • "Well, them cloths are a lot like folks. Ain't much difference at all. Some of us is more spiffed up than others, some stiffer, and still, some softer. There's the colorful and dull, ugly and pretty, old new 'guns. But in the end we's all fabric, cut from His cloth. Fabric, and just that."
  • "What I wanted most was to be okay as a Blue. I never understood why other people thought my color, any color, needed fixing."
  • "He didn't know, couldn't know, the load I'd carried as a Blue, the scorn and hatred and gruesome marriage ... I stepped back and shot out a shaky hand. 'No ... you're wrong. There is nothing wrong with your color in your world, a world that wants only whiteness."

It is these themes that resonate especially in the voices and the stories so prevalent in our news these days. Cussy, as a character, resonates because every person, at some point or another, has felt like the "other" in their life. The historical context of the pack horse librarians and the blue people of Kentucky adds another layer of interest to this book. It is a history I was not familiar with. The fiction has yet again pointed me in the direction of learning more about the actual history.

One of the challenges of the book is that it begins with an extreme situation of violence against a woman. It is jarring introduction. Was it necessary? I am not really sure, but it leaves an impact.

Another challenge is that vernacular language that is likely authentic to the time and the region but nevertheless takes getting used to in a written narrative. However, that fades to a minor point in the story itself.

My favorite part of the story is the ending. While reading, I got a point I felt could be the end. However, based on the pages remaining, it was not. Without spoilers, I will say I love the fact that the book brings the story around and grounds it again in the themes of prejudice and acceptance. These issues are not resolved, and I appreciate the fact that the book acknowledges that in this story.

Aside from the story and my review, here is an interesting side note of this book. Kim Michele Richardson's book was published on May 7, 2019. Jojo Moyes' book The Giver of Stars (review coming) has a publication date of October 8, 2019. Both are set in of the Pack Horse Library Project. Both of these books are the stories of the book women in eastern Kentucky. Kim Michele Richardson was born and raised in Kentucky. Jojo Moyes is said to have spent time there researching.

Upon the release of Jojo Moyes book, Kim Michele Richardson raised a concern about alleged plagiarism of her work. Based on the articles I have read, the accusation was denied. Ms. Richardson's publisher, declined to pursue the matter. Where does the truth lie? Perhaps, we will never know, but a literary scandal was too interesting not to mention. Read both and decide for yourself.

For me, this is a memorable story.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Story of Doctor Dolittle

Title:  The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts
Author:  Hugh Lofting
Publication Information:  Frederick A Stokes Company. 1920. 180 pages.

ISBN:  1983600865 / 978-1983600869 (for the paperback 2018 edition from CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)

Book Source:  I read this book because I am familiar with the general story and the many screen adaptation but had never before read the book.

Opening Sentence:  "Once upon a time, many years ago - when our grandfathers were little children - there was a doctor; and his name was Dolittle - John Dolittle, MD."

Favorite Quote:  "Money ... is a terrible nuisance. But it's nice not to have to worry."

Ever since I was a child, I have heard the stories of Dr. Dolittle. I have seen the movie adaptations. In fact, a new one (which I have not seen) is out now. I have read the children's picture books, but this is my first encounter with the original. I decided to research the original and discover both the original story and its history. I am shocked.

Let's get what we know out of the way. Dr. Dolittle is the story of a doctor who can talk to animals. The various iterations of the story are about his different adventures with his talking animal friends. The new versions are cute and colorful and clearly designed to entertain and charm.

Now for the history. Hugh Lofting wrote 15 books around the character of Dr. Dolittle, published between 1920 and 1952. Some of the publications came after the discovery of previously unpublished stories after his death. The second in the series, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, won the Newberry Award. Hugh Lofting was an engineer by profession. He also served in the British Army. The history goes that the origin of Dr. Dolittle is in his illustrated letters from the trenches of World War I to his children at home. Rather than share the horrors of war, he told his children stories.

Now for the original story itself. Dr. Dolittle is a physician of human beings. However, his love of animals and his inability to say no drives human patients away and renders him nearly destitute. It is then that he discovers that animals talk and that he can talk to them. The animals convince him to apply his knowledge as a veterinarian. A call for help sets them on a voyage to Africa. "There is a terrible sickness among the monkeys out there. They are all catching it - and they are dying in hundreds. They have heard of you, and beg you to come to Africa to stop the sickness." Adventures and misadventures abound with the story ending in his return to his home in the village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh in the West Country of England with treasures enough to sustain him financially.

Now for the details of those adventures and misadventures.  The most shocking aspect of the story is the extreme and blatant racism. This original includes an entire side story about an African prince who will do anything for the doctor if the doctor can only make him white. Why? He wishes to be white so that the princess will not wake and run screaming at the sight of him. Dr. Dolittle goes on to provide him with a "cure" to secure his own safe passage!

My understanding is that later editions (I am not sure how much later) have completely written out that subplot. Apparently, other portions of the text and the illustrations have also be altered to remove the racial elements of this story. It is these changes that render this story into its current view as an innocent children's story of adventure and caring for fellow creatures. For me, I don't think I can unsee the image of Prince Bumpo, his quest to the be acceptable to his Sleeping Beauty princess, and of Dr. Dolittle's cruel use of of Prince Bumpo.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.