Book Review: The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson

Title: The Book Woman’s Daughter
Author: Kim Michele Richardson
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Bestselling historical fiction author Kim Michele Richardson is back with the perfect book club read following Honey Lovett, the daughter of the beloved Troublesome book woman, who must fight for her own independence with the help of the women who guide her and the books that set her free.

In the ruggedness of the beautiful Kentucky mountains, Honey Lovett has always known that the old ways can make a hard life harder. As the daughter of the famed blue-skinned, Troublesome Creek packhorse librarian, Honey and her family have been hiding from the law all her life. But when her mother and father are imprisoned, Honey realizes she must fight to stay free, or risk being sent away for good.

Picking up her mother’s old packhorse library route, Honey begins to deliver books to the remote hollers of Appalachia. Honey is looking to prove that she doesn’t need anyone telling her how to survive. But the route can be treacherous, and some folks aren’t as keen to let a woman pave her own way.

If Honey wants to bring the freedom books provide to the families who need it most, she’s going to have to fight for her place, and along the way, learn that the extraordinary women who run the hills and hollers can make all the difference in the world.

I loved the 2019 novel The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, and was excited to hear that a sequel would be released this year. Sadly, The Book Woman’s Daughter doesn’t quite live up to the first book.

The story picks up about 15 years after the end of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. The first book’s main character, Cussy Mary Lovett, and her husband Jackson are raising their adopted daughter Honey in the backcountry hills — but the people of Kentucky have a long memory, and, it seems clears, a long-lasting capacity for hatred.

Cussy Mary is a Blue, one of the clan of Kentucky Appalachian dwellers with a genetic condition that gives them blue skin. The Blues are despised by white Kentuckians and are viewed as “colored” — and because Cussy is married to a white man, the two are accused of miscegenation. Although they live in isolation in the back woods, the law still catches up with them. As The Book Woman’s Daughter opens, Honey’s parents are arrested, treated violently, and soon thereafter sentenced to two years each in prison.

The law isn’t done with the family, though. Honey, at age 16, is a minor. The county has issued an order for Honey to be taken into custody and sent to a reform institution, where she can be held until age 21, doing hard labor and essentially a prisoner of the state. Honey makes a last-minute escape from the sheriff and social worker who come to seize her, and from there, must depend on the kindness and support of the mountain folk who loved her parents, including an old woman who assumes guardianship of Honey and a moonshiner whose family offers her shelter.

Things don’t go well for Honey, and she’s repeatedly forced to find new ways to survive and support herself, eventually taking up her mother’s former profession as a pack horse librarian. As the area’s new Book Woman, Honey travels the trails and mountains on her mule, but encounters trouble even there as she becomes embroiled in the struggles of a woman suffering abuse at her husband’s hands.

The book follows Honey’s efforts to find a place for herself, protect herself, and ultimately seek emancipation in order to keep herself out of the clutches of the state that wants to lock her up. Her journey involves some terrible experiences and danger, but she also finds new friends along the way and gains a better understanding of the plight of women in that time and place.

The Book Woman’s Daughter introduces us to the world of Appalachia in the mid-1950s, clearly not a welcoming world for women, especially those who don’t fit the traditional mold. It’s a place of economic woes, with children starving in the backcountry and men (and the occasional women) sacrificing their health to the coal mines — the only option for those seeking work and wages.

Honey is an endearing character, and I appreciated her determination, her commitment to her parents and her love of family, and her sense of right and wrong.

I did feel that the book lacks in terms of bringing the setting to life. I suppose there’s an assumption on the part of the author that readers will have read the first book, but even as someone who had read it, I would have liked this book to spend a little more time describing the way of life, the landscape, and the overall sense of the time and place. Instead, we’re dropped into a setting that doesn’t get fleshed out enough, and I always felts something was missing.

My other quibble with this book is a certain flatness. The events move along, and some are moving or frightening, but overall, I couldn’t quite get emotionally engaged. Honey’s parents are almost entirely off the page, which is a shame — they’re the connection to the first book, but they’re rarely seen, and this second book doesn’t create enough of a link back to their story.

I’m still glad to have read The Book Woman’s Daughter, but it didn’t capture my feelings or imagination the way The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek did. Still, for those who read the first book, it’s worth reading this follow-up to see what happens next for the family.

Audiobook Review: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Title: The Giver of Stars
Author: Jojo Moyes
Narrator:  Julia Whelan
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: October 8, 2019
Print length: 388 pages
Audio length: 13 hours 52 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the author of Me Before You, set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond.

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic–a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post questioning whether we really needed another book about the Depression-era Kentucky pack hours librarians, after having read the excellent The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. A variety of sources had identified concerns about he similarities of this book and The Giver of Stars, which was published later in the same year.

At the time, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read another book on the same historical subject, particularly given some of the questions raised. However, I finally got around to The Giver of Stars after all, and I have to admit, it’s really good.

In The Giver of Stars, we’re introduced to the small town of Baileyville, Kentucky through the eyes of Alice Van Cleve, a young Englishwoman recently married to Bennett Van Cleve, the son of one of the wealthiest and most influential local men. Alice’s starry-eyed approach to marriage is shattered by the absolute lack of affection from Bennett and his constant deferral to his father, in whose house they live and who controls every aspect of their lives.

At a town meeting, a local woman introduces the idea of starting up a pack horse library as part of a WPA project spearheaded by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. While many townsfolk (mostly men) are scandalized, Alice is quick to volunteer, needing to find a purpose and an occupation to take her away from her domestic unhappiness.

The librarians, led by outspoken Margery O’Hare, ride up into the mountains on their mules and horses to deliver books and magazines to the families living there. The job is strenuous and difficult, but rewarding. The women of the library are clearly changing lives with each contact and each delivery.

Alice’s father-in-law is not one to tolerate disobedience, and he takes a particular dislike to Margery’s flouting of traditional feminine roles, painting her as an evil influence to anyone who’ll listen. Mr. Van Cleve owns the local mine that employs much of the adult male population of the area, and he has his own doubtful interests to protect, especially once he suspects Margery of promoting pro-union activism and helping the mountain folk to find ways to thwart his intended mine expansion. His anger becomes more and more dangerous to Alice, Margery, and the existence of the library itself.

The Giver of Stars is an absorbing read, with unique characters we come to care about a great deal, and a nice mix of focus on their personal lives with the bigger picture drama of life in Baileyville and its gossip, natural and man-made dangers, and good-old-boy politics.

The audiobook is lovely, with narration by the talented Julia Whelan, who brings the characters to life, but also beautifully narrates the more descriptive passages about the Kentucky landscapes and the quality of life in the hills.

So, I hereby take back my skepticism about this book! While there are some similarities to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (apart the most obvious, the choice of general subject matter), there was nothing that particularly jumped out at me while I was listening the The Giver of Stars enough to be disturbing or distracting.

Yes, I guess we really did need two books about pack horse librarians! Both are terrific. My main recommendation would be to read them with some time in between, so each can be appreciated on its own merits. I’m glad I finally gave The Giver of Stars a try!

How many pack horse librarian books is too many?

Image from Wednesday’s Women website

Oh, dear.

A whiff of scandal has just come to my attention, and it involves one of my go-to authors.

It seems that the new novel by Jojo Moyes, The Giver of Stars, may have just a wee bit too much in common with a book published earlier this year, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Robinson.

A friend just sent me this link from Buzzfeed about the “alarming similarities” between the two books. And while I haven’t read The Giver of Stars yet (my hold request just came in at the library), hearing this makes me pause a bit.

I read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek when it came out, and loved it. (My review is here). It’s a personal, intimate look at the life of a pack horse librarian in Kentucky during the Depression.

 

In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky.

Along her dangerous route, Cussy, known to the mountain folk as Bluet, confronts those suspicious of her damselfly-blue skin and the government’s new book program. She befriends hardscrabble and complex fellow Kentuckians, and is fiercely determined to bring comfort and joy, instill literacy, and give to those who have nothing, a bookly respite, a fleeting retreat to faraway lands.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a powerful message about how the written word affects people–a story of hope and heartbreak, raw courage and strength splintered with poverty and oppression, and one woman’s chances beyond the darkly hollows. Inspired by the true and historical blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Kentucky Pack Horse library service, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek showcases a bold and unique tale of the Pack horse Librarians in literary novels — a story of fierce strength and one woman’s belief that books can carry us anywhere — even back home.

And guess what? Jojo Moyes’s new book is ALSO about a pack horse librarian in Kentucky during the Depression.

 

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Horseback Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them—and to the men they love—becomes a classic drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. Though they face all kinds of dangers, they’re committed to their job—bringing books to people who have never had any, sharing the gift of learning that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope. At times funny, at others heartbreaking, this is a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

And sure, two authors could work on two completely separate novels at the same time and have them be about the same subject, time period, historical area of interest, etc. But the BuzzFeed piece makes it sounds like the similarities go beyond general subject matter.

I was all queued up to read the new Jojo Moyes book, because hey, I read ALL her new books. But I must admit, I knew nothing about the actual plot before reading this article today, other than that it was set in the US and was historical fiction. Now I’m not so sure that I want to read it. Even if the similarities are completely innocent, I feel like I already read one excellent book about a pack horse librarian — I’m not feeling like I need another right now!

What do you think? Are you familiar with either book? Have you read either one… and if you’re planning to, does this information change your feelings at all?

I haven’t decided yet what to do about the book sitting at the library waiting for me… I’ll probably still pick up my hold copy of The Giver of Stars and at least start it, but between the hints of something being off here and the fact that this might be repetitive storytelling for me, I’m not sure that my heart is in it any more.

Would love to hear other readers’ thoughts on this!

Note: The photo above, as well as lots of terrific information on the Pack Horse Librarian project, can be found on the Wednesday’s Women website at https://wednesdayswomen.com/good-reads-in-wild-places-the-wpas-pack-horse-librarians/ 

The Monday Check-In ~ 7/1/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

Summer may start officially in June, but when the calendar says July, that’s when I know it’s really here. So… happy July! Happy summer!

What did I read during the last week?

Meet Me at the Cupcake Café by Jenny Colgan: Like all books by this author, sweet and yummy! My review is here.

Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America by Box Brown: Interesting, entertaining, eye-opening graphic novel exploring the history of cannabis’s legal status in the US –and (not surprisingly) how much of the outrage over cannabis was tied to racism and lies.

In children’s books:

I read That Book Woman by Heather Henson, a picture book about the Depression-era Pack Horse Librarians of the Appalachian region. A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, a novel about one such “book woman” (excellent read!), and then learned about this children’s book and other related topics from Hopewell’s Public Library of Life. Check out her post to learn more!

Fresh Catch:

And just as I was reading one Jenny Colgan book, another new one came in the mail!

Meanwhile, I was out of town when an author I love visited my favorite local bookstore, but they were kind enough to get me a signed copy of her latest anyway:

And while I was there picking up my book, well… let’s just say I have no resistance to the almighty temptation of BOOKS.

So I bought these too:

And also these:

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe: A sequel to the bewitching (ha!) The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I’m getting close to the end — watch for my review in the next few days.

Now playing via audiobook:

Anne of Windy Poplars by L. M. Montgomery: Continuing my Anne adventures!

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group reads at the moment:

  • A Fugitive Green by Diana Gabaldon, from the Seven Stones To Stand or Fall collection.
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection.

So many books, so little time…

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