The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek Book Club Questions and Recipe
*If you are new here, WELCOME! For The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, I provide your book club with a brief summary, a recipe, and discussion questions in that order!
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is the first bestseller of Kim Michele Richardson, but it isn’t her first book. She has written three other novels and one non-fiction book. And, her writing reflects that experience.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek tackles two unique subjects in history that you may not be familiar with–the Pack Horse Librarians and the Blue People of Kentucky. The Pack Horse Library was part of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration in 1930s. The blue-skinned people of Kentucky were a real group of people born with blue skin who lived in the mountains of Appalachia.
Richardson’s main character, Cussy Mary, is both a Pack Horse Librarian and a Blue. The novel follows her as she struggles through the restraints placed on her as a woman at the time and the discrimination she faces as a Blue person, which was considered colored.
The novel, which I would consider literary in style, unapologetically describes both the poverty and the pride of the residents of Appalachia. I originally delayed reading this novel because I knew the subject would be somewhat dark, and it is. But, it is something that I think needed to be written.
In addition to tackling poverty and starvation, Richardson addresses discrimination in a way that will have the reader examining her own heart. Cussy Mary is a Blue, a skin color most of us are unfamiliar with, but as a Blue she faces intense discrimination throughout the story (it is the primary obstacle). Through Cussy’s story, Richardson takes us on a journey of empathy with Cussy’s plight, confusion and anger when others refuse to see her as equal, and, finally, examination of our own lingering prejudices. It is a timely book for readers right now.
Despite it’s serious and heavy subject, I really enjoyed The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and flew through the pages. I highly recommend reading it as a group as it will provide a lively conversation on unexpected subjects! Beyond that, it’s fascinating to learn a new piece of American history.
I cannot write a post about The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek without addressing the controversy that has come to light around it and The Giver of Stars, which I’ve also featured. Personally, I found the two books to be so completely different that I cannot help but recommend you read both books. If you are unfamiliar with the controversy, I’m addressing it in a separate post where I compare both books, provide discussion questions that contrast the books, and a recipe. That said, I urge you to read both books before you form any opinion!
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a wonderful choice for a book club read. It is rare that a book brings me to tears, but this one did, twice. In any event, there is plenty to discuss about The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and who doesn’t love a novel piece of American history? On that note, I’ve provided book club questions and a delicious and really unique recipe for The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, so if you are looking for food ideas and more, keep reading!
Here’s a brief summary of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek:
In the poverty-stricken Appalachian town of Troublesome Creek, Roosevelt’s Pack Horse Library Project aims to bring education to citizens so far up the mountains that they’ve rarely seen a book. Cussy Mary is a proud Pack Horse Librarian, but she’s also a Blue. The last of the blue-skinned people of Kentucky, according to her father, a group thought of as untouchable and cursed. As she travels to her patrons, delivering them hope through books, Cussy must fight against nature, starvation, racial prejudices, sexism, and her own inner-critic. As she struggles to fight the shame she’s carried for so long, she finds the courage to be herself and speak the voice that’s been quieted.
For The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek recipe:
The characters in The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek face extreme poverty and limited resources. Several of the characters, if not all, are threatened by starvation. I see this often in WWII novels and finding a recipe to create is difficult (See my struggle to find a recipe for The Nightingale here). That said, although the threat of food scarcity is palpable in the novel, Richardson writes about many foods the character’s survive with in the pages.
While I won’t be mentioning rabbit or rattle snake here, if your book club is open, you could always try it! Here are several great food ideas for The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek:
- Chapter 8 – Queenie shares her fat biscuit and Cussy shares her apple when Cussy shows Queenie her route after starting at the library. (Also Jackson gives Junia lots of apples!)
- Chapter 9 – Henry gives Cussy his pineapple lifesaver when she visits school.
- Chapter 10 – Fried collards greens, hominy, biscuits and gravy, and skillet molasses bread are all mentioned as Cussy visits her patrons.
- Chapter 12 – Mrs. Evans gives Cussy a slice of cracklin’ bread (see my recipe here!) for reading her son’s letter and Cussy gives it to Timmy.
- Chapter 17 – Doc gives Cussy a pear, some cheese, and some honey after their first trip to Lexington.
- Chapter 26 – Cussy cooks nettle soup for dinner after Angeline saves her from the rattle snake. Also, at the Pie Bake dance, Cussy reminisces the sorghum pie with buttery crust she would have made.
- Chapter 32 – Attendees enjoy pies, cakes, deer sausage and watermelon at the Independence Day festival. Cussy brings a scripture cake made with cinnamon, figs and expensive sorghum in hopes of being accepted.
I was very intrigued when I read that Cussy Mary made a scripture cake. After a little research, I learned that scripture cakes were very popular in Appalachia at the turn of the 20th century. Women took verses from the Bible that mention a food ingredient and wrote out an entire recipe using just verses in an effort to teach their children the Bible and cooking at the same time.
A recipe might look like this:
3/4 cups Judges 5:25, last clause
2 cups Jeremiah 6:20
5 Jeremiah 17:11, seperated
I also thought this would be a great recipe to symbolize what the novel is really about. Cussy Mary takes the extra trouble and uses precious money to bake the scripture cake and in that dessert you can feel the weight of everything she is hoping will happen at the festival. All of the discrimination and prejudice come up against Cussy’s bid for grace and what occurs is really tragic.
After looking at several old recipes, I came up with my own twist and added a drizzle of golden syrup across the top (inspired by this blog). The result is a rich cake full of flavor and packed with spices, figs, almonds, and raisins.
Like the novel, this treat is a piece of history that your book club is sure to love learning about, and tasting! Cussy Mary uses sorghum syrup, but I was not able to find any locally. If you have access to it or wish to order it, you can replace the honey in the recipe with sorghum, which will deepen the flavor.
The golden syrup adds sweetness and moisture to the cake, although it isn’t a dry cake by any means! Feel free to serve it without the syrup, but it really does add a little extra charm!
In the recipe below, I’ve also added corresponding Bible verses just as Cussy Mary’s mother would have done. So, if you are looking for food ideas for The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, I think your book club will be happy to try Scripture Cake with Golden Syrup!
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek Scripture Cake
- Tube or Bundt Pan
- Electric mixer
- 3/4 cup butter room temperature (Judges 5:25, last clause)
- 2 cups sugar Jeremiah 6:20
- 5 eggs separated and room temperature (Jeremiah 17:11)
- 3 cups flour 1 Kings 4:22
- ½ tsp salt Matthew 5:13
- 2 tsp baking powder 1 Corinthians 5:6
- 2 tbsp honey or sorghum (1 Samuel 14:25)
- 2 cups raisins 1 Samuel 30:12
- 2 cups figs Proverbs 27:18
- 1 cup almonds Numbers 17:8
- ½ tsp nutmeg 2 Chronicles 9:1
- ½ tsp allspice 2 Chronicles 9:1
- 1 tsp cinnamon 2 Chronicles 9:1
- ½ cup milk Hebrews 5:13
- Extra almonds for garnish optional
- 1 ½ cups sugar Jeremiah 6:20
- 3 tbsp water John 4:13-14
- 1/3 cup water (warm) John 4:13-14
- ¼ cup butter Judges 5:25, late clause
For the Scripture Cake:
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
- Cream the butter, sugar and honey together in a large bowl.
- Mix in the 5 egg yolks, reserving the egg whites.
- Sift 2 ½ cups of flour, reserving ½ cup, with the salt, baking powder, and spices in a separate bowl. Slowly incorporate into the creamed butter and sugar, adding the milk for moisture as you do.
- Using an electric mixer, whip the egg whites in a separate bowl until they become stiff.
- Carefully fold the egg whites into the batter.
- Dredge the chopped figs, almonds, and raisins with the reserved ½ cup of flour. This will keep them from falling to the bottom of the cake.
- Fold the dredged figs, almonds and raisins into the batter.
- In a very well buttered and floured tube or bundt pan, pour the batter.
- Cook for 1 hour 15 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
- Cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes.
For the Golden Syrup:
- In a heavy sauce pan, cook the sugar on low with the 3 tbsp of water. It will take several minutes, but the sugar will begin to melt. Once melting, stir frequently to prevent sticking.
- Once all the sugar is melted, allow to brown.
- SLOWLY add the 1/3 cup of WARM water. The sugar may try to crystalize into candy at this point so slowly pour the water in while continuing to stir.
- Once the water is added, stir in the butter and remove from heat.
- Allow to cool to a syrup consistency.
- To Assemble:
- Pour the syrup over the cake.
- Top with more chopped almonds.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek Book Club Questions:
*WARNING: May contain spoilers!
- Before reading the novel had you ever heard about the blue-skinned people of Kentucky? What about the Pack Horse Librarians? Did you research anything more about the two outside of reading? Discuss any of your discoveries.
- The book starts off with Cussy Mary being courted by some truly terrible suitors and finally married off to Charles Frazier. How did you feel about Pa encouraging this despite Cussy’s objections? When things went awry and she moved back home were you able to forgive him? What instances of gender inequality most shocked you from the book?
- Discuss Pa and other character’s pride and refusal to work for the WPA program despite its benefits. R.C. is refused his girl’s hand because he works for the “We Poke Along” program. Why do you think that folks “would rather starve than participate?” Do you have any family history with the WPA? Did you or your family experience any stigma from participating in the program?
- Cussy Mary and the Pack Horse Librarians encourage knowledge, reading, and education by bringing their far-reaching patrons books that would otherwise have never reached them in hopes of improving their lives. Yet, Cussy never has the courage herself to dream bigger, to consider leaving Kentucky, or to stand up to the discrimination she faces. Why do you think this is?
- The book ends fairly abruptly after things fall apart at Cussy’s second wedding. We are given a short glimpse into the future four years after in an epilogue-like chapter, but not much. Did this leave you wanting? Did you appreciate the events at the wedding because they were true-to-life or did they leave you disappointed and wishing for more vindication?
- Cussy loses several treasured people over the course of the book reminding the reader of the harsh life in Appalachia. Which loss touched you the most? Do you think that there was anything that might have happened to prevent any of them? Did the hardships the characters endured make you appreciate your own blessings?
- Cussy Mary is called a heathen, a sinner, even a witch in the novel primarily due to her blue color and fear that resulted from not knowing what caused it. Even when Doc finds the underlying reason for Cussy’s color, even after she takes medication that turns her white temporarily, she is still subject to discrimination and hatred. Discuss the scenes at the Fourth of July celebration and at her wedding. Why do you think that the people still refused to accept Cussy even after her disease is discovered?
- How did Richardson’s use of a Kentucky Blue, a skin color you might have never heard of before, illuminate racial discrimination to you in a new way? Did being white change who Cussy was or just how other people saw her? Do you think Cussy should have continued the medication to make her life easier despite the side effects?
- Cussy and the other Pack Horse librarians traveled miles each day alone through the mountains. Cussy spent every night alone as her Pa went to work at the coal mine. Would you have been as brave? If you didn’t think Cussy found her full voice and stood up for herself, does thinking about this change how courageous she was in your mind? How do you think the definition of courage changes relative to time period and economic conditions?
- Who was your favorite of Cussy’s patrons? Which character did you despise the most? And, lastly, what were your thoughts on Jackson Lovett?
What did you think of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek? Did it satisfy you or were you left wishing for more? What are some other books on niche historical topics that you have read?
Until next time, Happy Reading!
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