The Pack Horse Library Project
Recently I was intrigued to read of an initiative supported by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1930’s America of a library service to isolated areas of Kentucky. The books were carried by packhorses or mules and ‘book women’ were employed to take the service up into the Appalachian mountains, providing reading material for families and encouraging literacy amongst a disadvantaged population.
This was brought to my notice by a novel called The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson which is based around this Packhorse Library Project. This gritty story focuses as much on the harsh lives of the women who were employed to ride up into the mountains as on the deprived families and individuals who benefitted from the service. The packhorses could travel as much as 120 miles each week across challenging terrain carrying around 100 books each day – books which were donated to the Library and which brought comfort and much needed instruction to the population. Scrapbooks, recipes and stories where much in demand and were valued greatly.
The novel is a fictionalised account touching on the issues common at the time, warts and all. The main character of Cussy Mary is in some ways a tragic figure, afflicted by a rare genetic disorder which made her skin blue but which gives her the grit and determination to battle through extreme weather, terrain, prejudice and danger in her daily life as a woman and packhorse librarian. I was enthralled by the story, especially as it is based on real life. To hear of the value given to reading material when it is scarce is great to hear in a world which is in danger of becoming complaisant towards the value of literacy, stories, knowledge and instruction.
Just after this book was published I was interested to find out that Jojo Moyes had also written a book about this story. The Giver Of Stars is a more sanitised version of the conditions which the book women would have had to contend with, and given her profile as a bestselling author, this version has become the more well known novel of the two. There are some marked similarities between the two versions which did give rise to some speculation about plagiarism but given the fact that both authors used the same source material in their research the claims were not pursued.
I have just become aware that there is now a follow-up title by Kim Michele Richardson – The Bookwoman’s Daughter – and am now adding it to my TBR pile! (To Be Read).