While this is not the first time I’ve heard about the packhorse librarians, it is the first book that I’ve read featuring them, and what a grand initiation! Along a Storied Trail may be a fictional tale, but Ann Gabhart incorporates the intrepid spirit of the women who promoted literacy among the Appalachian Mountain communities during the Great Depression while offering readers a glimpse into life in the hills. Women, both married and single, become the heroines as they accept paying jobs to follow the postal service’s creed to travel through all forms of inclement weather to keep to their schedules—an early bookmobile! “A packhorse librarian had to be tough and ready for anything,” Tansy Calhoun asserts. I was interested to learn that they received payment for this job, and that it was a full-time commitment that involved traveling to different areas daily, returning to each location every two weeks. I also love that these women had a weekly meeting at the Booneville Library to swap out books, choosing ones that they knew would suit their readers, and to repair books and use magazines to make their own books and write their own stories for the children on their routes.
Gabhart creates a satisfying cast of characters that provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of life in the Eastern Kentucky hills in 1937. Tansy Calhoun is a girl after my own heart, with her unabashed love of the written word and her dedication to bringing books to her neighbors in Owsley County. I can’t think of a more perfect occupation: “A day chin-deep in words and stories seemed the next thing to heaven to Tansy.” Being able to share, and in some cases introduce, literature to those who would otherwise go without it, and doing so on horseback through the mountains sounds like a dream come true to me, as well. I also felt a connection with Tansy in the way that she stood out from the majority of the mountain folk due to her pastimes, and just reading about the decline of the American chestnut saddened me while at the same time bringing a smile to my face, particularly given that she did share this interest with Caleb Barton. Gabhart does not give readers much detail about Caleb’s work with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) because the story begins after his time there, but that aspect drew me in also because my grandpap worked with the CCC in the 1930s, too.
As with any story from this era, Along a Storied Trail has its share of heartache and romance. Unexpected death, the loss of one’s home, unrequited love, and the challenges of everyday survival pepper the narrative. I appreciate that the author does not sugarcoat the lives of her characters, but instead portrays them as realistic individuals. Damien Felding represents the outsider who does not understand the mountain way of life but sees it as something to escape from, while Jenny Sue and Junie prove that grieving has no geographical or time limits. Nevertheless, Tansy sagely notes that “While there were some things a book couldn’t heal, a story could give you some minutes to escape from what was to what a person could imagine.” And it is through the pages of a fire-tested Bible that healing comes to these Appalachian hills.
Reminiscent of such beloved classics as Christy while also possessing its own unique Appalachian flair, Ann Gabhart’s Along a Storied Trail is a must-read for fans of the genre and for anyone who enjoys an inspiring story of love, books, and family—both the one we’re born into and the one we create for ourselves, or as Perdita Sweet would say, a “family born of need.”
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Revell and was under no obligation to post a positive review. All opinions are my own.
My rating: 5 stars ♥♥♥♥♥
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