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The Book Woman’s Daughter

The Book Woman’s Daughter PDF

Author: Kim Michele Richardson

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark


Publish Date: May 3, 2022

ISBN-10: 1728242592

Pages: 352

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

They still call her Book Woman, having long forgotten the epithet for her cobalt-blue flesh, though she’s gone now from these hills and hollers, from her loving husband and daughter and endearing Junia, her patrons and their heartaches and yearnings for more. But you must know another story, really all the other important stories that swirled around and after her, before they are lost to winters of rotting foliage and sleeping trees, swallowed into the spring hymnals of birdsong rising above carpets of phlox, snakeroot, and foxglove. These stories beg to be unspooled from Kentucky’s hardened old hands, to be bound and eternally rooted like the poplar and oak to the everlasting land.

Thousandsticks, Kentucky 1953
The bitter howls of winter, uncertainty, and a soon-to-be forgotten war rolled over the sleepy, dark hills of Thousandsticks, Kentucky, in early March, leaving behind an angry ache of despair. And though we’d practiced my escape many times, it still felt terrifying that this time was no longer a drill.
I remember when I was twelve, and the shrill air-raid alarm sounded in the schoolyard as we were dropping books off at the stone school over in Troublesome Creek. The teacher yelled out to Mama, “It’s a duck-and-cover drill,” and then rushed us all inside, instructing everyone to crawl under the desks and cover our heads. It had been scary, but I still felt safe under the thin, wooden lip of the school desk.
Today, at sixteen, I realized how foolish it was to think that a little desk could protect anyone from a bomb—how difficult it was now to believe that hiding would somehow save me from the bigger scatter bombs coming.
I shifted my feet on the stiff, frozen grass umbrella’d under the Cumberland Forest, breathing in the cold as Mama helped me into her heavy coat. In every direction, hoarfrost crowned the forest surrounding our cabin, its gray crystals shimmering through pines, hickories, and oaks, as the twining psalms of chickadees and warblers announced the morning Overhead, a turkey buzzard glided low, scanning for dead flesh. I shivered as the ugly bird dipped lower and lower.
“You must hurry,” Mama chided for the second time, a pull of the cold escaping her breath. “He’ll be coming up here to escort us to court anytime now. Remember everything we told you. Everything we practiced.”
From the side of our cabin, the hood of a lawman’s parked automobile poked out behind a thicket of chokeberries, the first rays of sunlight flashing off headlights and polished chrome.

“I’m frightened, Mama.”
“That’s not a bad thing, darling daughter. It’ll make you more cautious.” Two weeks ago, my parents hid me in the cellar when the law showed up to arrest them for violating miscegenation laws, after a peddler happened upon our family and remarked back in town about Mama’s strange blue color. Papa hired counsel, bond was posted, and yesterday word came of a revocation hearing while I stayed hidden in the cellar. Today they would go in front of a judge because of Papa’s parole violation on his 1936 banishment order and for daring to marry a woman of mixed color—a blue-skinned Kentuckian.
After Papa got out of prison, we’d moved over to Thousandsticks from Troublesome Creek, and our family had been living in secret here for the last twelve years.
I saw the fear in Mama’s eyes as she reached for the scarf. Her hearing was also set for today.
Hiding inside after the lawman arrived last night, I peeked out the curtains and saw him watching from his automobile to make sure Mama and Papa didn’t flee the county before the hearing. He’d stayed all night and was out there right now sleeping in his official vehicle.
“Mama, I don’t want to leave you and Papa. My home.” I swiped at my eyes with the cuff of her scratchy wool coat.

“You’re not safe here.” She wrapped a knit scarf around my neck.

“I want to stay and wait for you and Papa to come back after the hearing. I’m nearly grown, almost seventeen—”
“It’s too dangerous, Honey Mary-Angeline,” she said, including my middle names she and Papa christened me with years ago when one of the saddlebag preachers stopped at our small cabin hidden near the forest. Mama asked what name I’d like to take and I had said Mary, for her middle name, Cussy Mary Lovett, the distinguished Book Woman of these ol’ hills who’d worked for the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project when I was little. Then I asked if I could have two, and added Angeline for my first mama.
Angeline and my first papa, Willie Moffit, had been Blues, too, but neither of them knew it, Mama had told me later. Angeline died in ’36, right after she birthed me. Mama never said much about my first papa, only that an accident caused his demise. By the time I turned six, I had lost most of the methemoglobinemia, the gene disorder that the ol’ doc over in Troublesome Creek said me and Mama and the Moffits had.
Doc explained that Mama’s parents, the Carters, like other clans ’round the country, were all kin to themselves, same as the royalty in Europe. Only difference, we didn’t have us a family tree like most folk. Instead, we’d gotten twisty vines that knotted, wrapped, and wound around each other. And although my hands and feet still turned a bruising blue whenever I got scared or excited, only those parts of me took on the strange color.
I was grateful I could easily hide the affliction. Affliction. A hard word for me to swallow, but it wasn’t nothing compared to hearing how Mama had been treated. How the law ripped her and Papa apart on their wedding day, calling them immoral and sinners and worse. Mama said I was only three months old when the Troublesome Creek sheriff had beaten and arrested Papa and threatened to lock Mama up, too, and throw me into the Home of the Idiots on that October day in ’36.

Lifting my palms, I watched the tint of a robin’s-egg blue rise and spread with a darker tinge outlining them. Nothing as dark as Mama’s color that covered every inch of her. I thought of the fright, scorn, and horror that would appear in others’ eyes when they glimpsed Mama’s ink-blue skin. The embarrassment, shame, and sadness leaching into Mama’s.
Once, when I was six years old, we were buying apples inside a store in Tennessee when the man behind the counter called Mama an ugly name and ordered us out. When I saw the hurt pooling in Mama’s eyes, a blinding fury like no other rose inside me. Unable to tamp it down, I threw my apple at the shopkeeper. He snatched up a thick wooden broom. Mama apologized to the angry man and scolded me as she rushed us out the door, shielding my small frame while taking the brunt of the shopkeeper’s battering strikes and raging curses.
Mama received eight stitches on her scalp. After that, I learned to keep quiet and lower my head—learned what a Blue had to do to stay safe.
I looked over at the lawman’s automobile, my stomach stitched in knots. Mama’s hands trembled as she reached into my coat pocket, pulled out a pair of gloves, and handed them to me. She’d been knitting these to hide my blue skin and to keep me, the last of our kind, hidden from the rest of the world. Papa, wanting to contribute, had stitched me black leather ones to switch out. They were my armor, a shield against folk who hunted the Blues.
“Can I go to Tennessee and visit Papa’s kin instead?”
“Great Uncle Emmet’s place is bursting at the seams. There’s fourteen in the home and they can’t squeeze in another soul. I’m sorry, Honey, there’s no one else.”
She flipped down the thick collar on the coat and straightened it. “I packed your brown journal. You be sure to keep writing those pretty poems of yours.”

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