Today I’m revealing the cover and description of my next release. Carry the World is a historical romance, set in Depression-Era Appalachia and starring a young woman who takes a job as a pack horse librarian.
The Pack Horse Librarian Project was part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, which put people to work in public-service jobs. In this case, people, mostly women, were hired to carry books and other reading materials, as well as news and company, deep into the remotest reaches of the Appalachian Mountains, where the residents had no modern conveniences, or usually any reliable way of traveling closer to the rest of the world.
These women routinely rode as much as 120 miles a week on their routes, over treacherous mountain terrain. They were often the only connection their patrons had with the outside world.
I came across an article about the Pack Horse Librarian project a few years ago, and a plot bunny had hopped around my brain ever since. I simply adored writing the story of one of these stalwart, heroic women.
Carry the World is a bit of a departure for me. This is a truly sweet, quiet story, a slow-burn romance, with very little violence. The only real enemy here is hardship and loss.
It’s a story about a love that builds a world.
Carry the World will go live on Saturday, 4 May 2019. A preorder will be available a few weeks in advance.
Here’s the description:
Eastern Kentucky, 1937.
After the death of her husband, Ada Donovan returned home to live again with her aging parents. She does all she can to help them keep the small family farm going. But times are hard, and there’s never enough.
During one of her infrequent visits to town, she sees a help-wanted notice for the Pack Horse Librarian Project, seeking librarians to ride up high in the mountains and bring books to the people there. Before her marriage, Ada was a teacher, and the thought of returning to the work she loved is impossible to resist. The mountains are her favorite place, books are her great joy, and her horse is her best friend.
But not everyone on the mountain is happy to see her.
Living in a crumbing cabin at the highest, most isolated point of Ada’s route, there’s a family that catches her attention. The father keeps to the shadows. There is no mother to dote on the happy, curious children. But soon Ada comes to love them just as fiercely as the woman they lost.
And makes it her mission to bring them the world.
And Chapter Five as a preview:
The room was large and warm. A fire crackled in a stone fireplace. But if not for little miss Bluebird standing right before her, smiling with shy sweetness, and a tall, gaunt boy, two or three years her senior, standing off a bit, in the middle of the room, Ada would have thought she’d stepped into a haunted old relic long past its use.
The plank floor was grey with age and wear. The walls were papered with newspaper, the pages obviously many years old, yellowed and cracking. The windows were covered with decaying curtains that hardly blocked light or sight.
A small, plain square table framed with four equally plain chairs, and two straight-back rockers, were the only furnishings in the room. No—there was a worktable in the shadows of a far corner, a wood cookstove and a pump sink, and what might once have been a pie safe, though it had lost its doors.
There had to be more, but the shadows were too deep. And the man whose voice she’d heard—where was he?
Something felt strange here. Unsettling. If she’d been a less practical woman, she might have honestly believed the place was haunted, and Bluebird and her brother were mere figments of a forgotten past.
Suddenly superstitious, Ada reached out and set her hand on Bluebird’s shoulder. Bony and frail, but solid. Real. The girl’s angelic smile brightened at her touch.
“You c’n sit by the fire, if you want,” the boy said.
“Thank you.” She let Bluebird take her hand and lead her to a rocking chair.
The fireplace was sturdy stone, with a heavy beam for a mantel. Now that she was closer, she saw a large cross-stitch sampler, framed carefully under glass, was centered on that beam, leaning against the stone chimney. It was a typical sampler, with the alphabet stitched in two neat rows across the bottom, and a stitched image of a cozy cabin, smoke wafting from its chimney, in the center. Stitched above the cabin were the words: LORD BLESS AND KEEP US, and the name The Walkers beneath them.
The dry warmth eased her fretfulness, and she sighed. She set her packs on the floor beside the chair and sat down. “Would you like to look at the books I’ve brought?”
The boy turned and looked into the shadows beyond the room. Ada looked the same way, expecting to see their father, but saw nothing except the edge of a newel post, where the stairs to the second floor must be.
Bluebird had settled on the floor beside Ada and was playing with the fastenings of her saddlebags. Ada leaned over and unwound the tie, then lifted the flap and opened the top. The saddlebags were weatherproof, but days like this, with steady, drenching rain, put that to the test. The edges of the topmost books had swelled a little. She drew a slim picture book from the pack and handed it to the girl at her side.
“Can you read, Miss Bluebird? That is such a pretty name.”
The little girl flushed with pleasure. “My momma picked it. She named me Bluebird Hope Walker.”
“Well, I think that might be the best little girl’s name I’ve ever heard. Your momma must be wonderful.”
“Our momma’s dead,” the boy said. His tone wasn’t aggressive, or sorrowful. Simply flat.
Bluebird’s big eyes went round. “Uh-huh. She died when I came.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Ada said and brushed a finger under the girl’s little chin. She turned to the boy, her hand over her heart. “I’m so sorry.”
He held her gaze but didn’t respond.
“May I ask your name?”
He glanced toward the shadows again before returning to meet her eyes. “Elijah.”
“That’s a very fine name, too. Would you like a book, Elijah?”
He shook his head. Like his sister, he was a beautiful child, with golden hair, not shaggy, but roughly cut, and soulful blue eyes. “We ain’t got no school. Can’t read.”
Like every state in the Union, Kentucky had a compulsory education law, requiring students to attend at least grammar school. But when there was no school in reach, children like these were invisible to such laws and got an education only if there was someone in their family to teach them at home.
She glanced at that sampler. Someone had been able to read here. Their mother, most likely, who’d died when Bluebird was born—thus when Elijah was only two or three. Poor motherless children.
And a father afraid to make himself known. A widower. Ada turned again and studied the shadows beyond this room. She could almost feel eyes on her.
Turning back to Elijah, she smiled. “You know, I’m so grateful for the warmth you’ve offered me.” She set her hand on Bluebird’s silky head. “If you’d let me repay your kindness, I’d love to read you a story. Would you like that?”
“Please!” Bluebird cheered and held up the book she was flipping through. “This one!”
Yet again, Elijah turned to the shadows. “I guess it’d be alright.”
He came closer and crouched beside his sister. “What is this story?”
“That,” Ada said and held out her hand for the book, “is The Three Musketeers. There’s a much bigger story about them that someday you can read if you want, but this is just one of their adventures.” She pulled Bluebird onto her lap. Elijah stood at the side of her chair as she began to read.
After a few pages, she heard the sound of a door open and close heavily, but no one had come through this room. She looked out the window, through the tattered curtains, and saw a figure in the rain—a man, tall and broad-shouldered, hunched into his coat and hat. He went to Henrietta.
The horse didn’t know him and shied a bit when he took her reins. But he must have spoken kindly to her, because she went easily with him, out of sight. Ada forgot the book as she watched, wondering if Henrietta was safe.
“That’s Pa,” Elijah said. “He’ll be takin’ your horse to shelter, outta the rain.”
“That’s very kind of him. I’d like to make your father’s acquaintance.”
“Pa don’t like people,” Bluebird said, brushing her little fingers over Ada’s cheek. “You got spots.”
Ada laughed. “Those are called freckles, and yes, I do.”
“I want freckles, too.”
“God decides about freckles, I think, Bluebird.”
“Then I’ll ask Him when I say my prayers.”
“Can you read some more?” Elijah asked.
“Of course.” Ada picked up the story again.
This strange house was turning out to be her best stop of the day.
She read The Three Musketeers and Little Sallie Mandy and the Shiny Penny. Though the children couldn’t read them, she signed both books out to Elijah and Bluebird, and a primer called The New Path to Reading, helping Elijah with the first few pages and promising to help him more when she returned.
Nearly two hours had passed, and she needed to be on her way, but still she’d seen no more of Mr. Walker than his hunched form collecting her horse. The rain had stopped, except for the dripping from the trees that would continue for the remainder of the afternoon.
As she returned her ledger to the pack and closed her coat over her clothes, Ada asked, “Do you children have enough food?”
Elijah answered, his brow creasing with offense. “Pa takes good care of us, Mizz Ada. We got all we need.”
“That’s good, then. I’m glad. I meant no offense, Elijah. I only wanted to be sure.”
As Ada went to the door, Bluebird ran up and threw her arms around her legs. “Don’t go! I like stories!”
Ada crouched to the girl’s level. “I left the stories for you, Bluebird. And I’ll be back. Do you know how to count?”
Ada grinned. “That’s excellent! If you count ten mornings and then four more, I’ll be back, with more stories, and I’ll read to you again, if you’d like me to.”
“That’s exactly right! Well done!”
Bluebird hugged her again. Elijah shook her hand like a young gentleman, and Ada went out the door, still without having met their father.
She followed the path she’d seen him take Henrietta and found, behind the house, a small barn that was more lean-to than full structure. Most of it was little more than windbreak, with only three full walls and a partial fourth. Henrietta was tied under shelter. A dairy cow, an aged Holstein, was penned under cover as well, tucked into the nook where there were three solid walls. She heard a sleepy bleat and peered through a rough doorway into the shadows of the small, fully enclosed area. A few goats seemed to be clustered inside at a far corner.
Beside the barn, behind the house, was a small patch, less than a quarter acre, that had mostly been harvested, though a few vines of small pumpkins remained. A small chicken coop made a far wall boundary for the garden; it was closed up against the poor weather.
Henrietta was still saddled, but she was dry and munching contently at a box of dried mountain grasses. Her bridle had been removed and was hanging on a post. She was tied with a rope halter. Mr. Walker had taken very good care of her.
Ada peered into the protected part of the rough little barn. Aside from the pen of goats, she saw only hand tools, and some bundles of mountain grasses hanging from the ceiling to dry.
Mr. Walker provided for his family with what he could grow in that little patch, what this old cow and few goats and chickens could give, and what he could hunt or forage in the wilds.
She turned toward the post where Henrietta’s bridle hung, and nearly jumped clear through her skin. Mr. Walker stood there. His hat was tipped low over his face, and his head canted down, as if he studied his own boots. His trousers and coat were both a dark grey that had once been black, and his hands were shoved into his coat pockets. He was like a dark, hulking specter.
“Oh!” she gasped when she could breathe again. “You startled me.”
He lifted his head, and Ada nearly gasped again. Over the course of the afternoon, she’d conjured an image of Mr. Walker in her mind, but the man before her was not remotely the same. This man was … well, he was handsome, in a rough kind of way. Or maybe not handsome, but interesting-looking. Ada found herself fascinated, and her eyes focused on all of him in turn.
He was taller than she’d even realized, and broader as well. His face was made of harsh angles—square jaw and chin bristled with greying hairs, sharp cheekbones, heavy brow, blunt mouth. His hair was dark and shaggy under his hat. She couldn’t really see his eyes, under the shadow of his hat and that serious brow, but she could almost feel them boring into her.
“You were good to my children,” he said, and she recognized the voice as the one she’d heard earlier from the other side of the door. Pitched low, it rumbled is if it traveled over a rocky riverbed on the way to his mouth.
“They’re wonderful children. I was happy to spend time with them. I left some books, and I’ll be back in two weeks with more. If that’s alright by you.”
He stood still and didn’t answer. Ada was sure he was staring and wasn’t sure what to do. Then he touched a finger to the brim of his hat and walked away.
Ada watched him walk to his house, his broad back hunched again. She didn’t know what to make of Mr. Walker.
Ada’s father switched off the radio, and the new report went silent. The three souls of their little family sat in silence for a moment. The report had been full of turmoil in Europe and around the globe.
“I’m glad you’re a woman, Ada Lee,” her mother said to end the quiet. “It sure sounds like they want to make another war like before, and it’d kill me to send my last child to die like the first two.”
“Don’t you worry ‘bout that, Bess,” her father said. “What’s goin’ on over there’s none o’ our affair. President Roosevelt, he musta learnt from before. He won’t send no more American boys to do Europe’s dyin’.”
“Well,” her mother said and pushed herself up from her chair. “Leastwise, we don’t gotta worry ‘bout our girl.” She turned a wry, sightless look on Ada, turned right to her as if she could see her. “All’s we got to worry is if she falls off the mountain in the dark. Or gets et by a panther. Or gets shot by a somebody thinks she’s up to no good in they business.”
As her mother made her way to the kitchen, holding a hand out to be sure of her way, Ada rose from the floor and followed.
Her mother was at the plate of cookies on the table. In the month she’d been riding the mountain, Ada had taken to spending Sunday afternoons baking, making breads and biscuits, cookies and pies for the week. She liked something sweet in her lunch pail, and she liked to leave something sweet for her parents to enjoy as well.
A batch of pumpkin cookies had been her last of the day. She’d harvested the bulk of the pumpkins on Saturday afternoon, and had canned enough for them to eat through the winter and to use for trade, too. Her mother’s pumpkin soup was famous among their neighbors.
“Momma, what I do, it’s not dangerous.”
Her mother sat at the table and nibbled at a cookie. “Sit down, Ada Lee.”
“You know I was raised up there in Red Fern Holler. Till I went off on my own, I hardly ever saw a stranger wasn’t lookin’ to collect a tax.”
“I know, Momma.” She’d visited her grandparents in the holler when she was a girl. She was no stranger to the mountain, not before she’d taken this job nor since.
“Ever’ time I hear you ride off, I wonder if you ain’t gonna get shot by somebody don’t want a stranger snoopin’ at his door. Or maybe Hen’ll put a hoof down on a loose rock, and you’ll fall off a crag. Or a bear’ll stand up right in front of you. Ever’ time you go, I worry I’ll not see you again.”
“Momma …” she reached over and covered her mother’s hand with her own.
“Don’t tell me you’re safe, Ada Lee. A woman alone ain’t never safe. I know we need you to take this wage. You and your daddy, you try not to let me know the way things are, but it’s my eyes that went, not my head. I know. I can taste when you’re stretching ingredients to make ‘em last. I can hear when Zeke don’t turn the lights on. And I know good and well how much he hurts when he tries to work hisself. So I know we need what you can earn. I jus’ want you to tell me you know how dangerous that mountain is, and that you’re bein’ smart as you can be.”
“I am, Momma. I changed my route so I can be sure to be home before full dark. I keep a rifle with me, and I keep it loaded. I’m being as smart as I can be. And tomorrow, I’ll go into Callwood and get my first wages. Then we won’t need to stretch the flour and sugar or keep the lights out so much.” With twenty-eight dollars in her purse, she meant to stock well up on supplies.
“That’s well and good, but it’s you I care most for. I need you to come home, Ada Lee. Ever’ night. I need to know you’re here with us.”
Ada squeezed her mother’s hand, hardened by work and bent by arthritis. “I will be, Momma. Always.”
Chancey Maclaren ran around the front of his truck and opened the passenger-side door. He’d offered Ada a ride into town this morning, and she had happily accepted. After spending twenty-six days of the past month in the saddle, she was glad to give Henrietta this day off—and her own backside as well. Besides, riding in the truck with Chancey meant that she could dress up nicely for her librarian meeting.
“How long you need, Mizz Ada?” Chancey asked as he helped her to the sidewalk.
Ada thought about that and checked her wristwatch, another treasured gift from George. She wore it only for church and special days. It was ten minutes to ten in the morning. “Well, this meeting starts at ten and goes for four hours, and then I’ll need to do some shopping.”
He dug under his canvas jacket and pulled his heavy old pocket watch from his overalls. “I’ll meet you at the front of the dry goods store at three o’clock, then. That alright, Mizz Ada? If’n you ain’t done shopping, I’ll help. I wouldn’t want you carryin’ nothing heavy or dusty in that pretty dress.”
“That’s perfect, Chancey. Thank you.”
“Always happy to help you, Mizz Ada.” He grinned and ducked his chin a bit. He stood at the side of his truck like a guard while she went into the library and didn’t get in and pull away until she went to the window and waved him away.
Ada turned to face the library and grinned at what she saw.
Her first time here, Mrs. Pitts had been alone, and the space had been quiet and a bit gloomy. Ada had loved it, because of the books and the order and the peace, but it had felt lonely, too. Today, however, two large tables had been brought into the main part of the room and pushed together, and circled with plain chairs, and seven women besides Mrs. Pitts milled about that meeting space. They all faced her and offered her smiles of welcome.
“Mrs. Donovan, excellent.” Mrs. Pitts bustled up. “You may put your coat and things over there”—she indicated the other side of the room, where coats and bags and lunch pails lay neatly scattered over another long table—“and I’ll make introductions. Then we’ll get to work. You’re the last in, but that’s understandable. You’ve the farthest to come.”
She set her things in amongst the others, then stood for a moment with her back to the others, feeling a flash of awkwardness. She’d taken the last route and was the last to arrive today. How naïve was she compared to the others? How would she be judged?
After a moment, her practical soul took hold of such silly worries and shook her back to sense. With a quick smooth of her dress and a check to make sure her hair was in place, Ada put on her professional teacher’s smile and went to the others.
Mrs. Pitts was still standing, but the others had taken seats. Only two remained empty—the one Mrs. Pitts stood behind, at the head of the table, and another at the end of one side. She went to that chair.
“Ladies,” Mrs. Pitts said with an arm outstretched toward Ada. “Please welcome Mrs. Ada Donovan to our ranks.”
The other women nodded, smiled, or said “Hi Ada.” Ada returned their greeting with a nod and smile of her own.
“Ada comes to us from Barker’s Creek and has taken our last route. We’ve got this corner of Eastern Kentucky covered now, ladies. So let’s all introduce ourselves and get down to our business of the day.”
As her fellow librarians introduced themselves, they said where they lived and what route they had. Ada focused on remembering names, but she was also struck with a powerful feeling of community. These were mountain women, too. Mrs. Pitts might have been sent in by the government from away—Ada wasn’t sure about that, but suspected it was true—but her fellow librarians knew the mountains just like she did. They were women doing a service for their own people.
They were all literate, of course, but they weren’t all teachers. Only one other librarian had been a teacher. Another had been a reporter for a newspaper that had gone bust. The rest were simply women who loved books and needed to earn. Every one of them was either married or widowed.
She sat and listened as they talked, describing their victories and challenges, complaining about the string of days of wet weather, fretting about the cold to come, exchanging hints for keeping their feet dry and warm inside their boots. They talked about books that had been lost or ruined while out on loan, and others that were getting, in the words of Mrs. Tolliver, “just loved to death, so much the strings are coming loose from the bindings, and they’re all but loose pages.”
After Mrs. Owens had mentioned a trouble she was having with one family, and her concern for the children there, Ada piped up. “Yes, I have a family or two I’m concerned about as well.”
They all turned to her, and Ada felt a bit shy, like she’d interrupted where she ought not have. But Mrs. Owens said, “A family like my Cranes?”
“Something like, I think. The Devlins. Mr. Devlin has been very hostile to me, and I’m worried about his wife and children. He beats his wife, it’s clear. And when last I visited, the youngest children were hardly dressed, though the temperature couldn’t have been more than fifty degrees. They won’t even let me dismount. I’m not sure what to do, but I’m worried.”
“We can’t meddle, Mrs. Donovan.” That was one of the older women, a staunch lady of about forty, Mrs. Castle. “We can only cause more harm if we meddle. Unless Mrs. Devlin is asking for your help?”
“No. She’s not. She wants me to stay away.”
“I say,” offered Mrs. Galway, “To you and Mrs. Owens—keep these families on your route. At least, you can see if things get worse, and if Mrs. Devlin wants help, you can help her. Leastwise, your visits let her know she’s not forgotten.”
“I agree,” said Mrs. Pitts. “Don’t give up, ladies. Keep yourself safe, of course. I trust your judgment to know when a home’s not safe for a visit, and to make a note of it in your ledger. But remember our mission. It’s more than books we bring.”
“We carry the world,” several of the women said, their wry grins and sidelong looks suggesting they heard that line frequently and had made it a joke among them.
Ada liked it. She didn’t think it was funny at all. It was important.
© 2018 Susan Fanetti