Book Review for “The Last Blue” by Ilsa Morley.
Summary: “In 1937, there are recesses in Appalachia no outsiders have ever explored. Two government-sponsored documentarians from Cincinnati, Ohio—a writer and photographer—are dispatched to penetrate this wilderness and record what they find for President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. … From [a] happenstance meeting between a woman isolated from society and persecuted her whole life, and a man accustomed to keeping himself at lens distance from others, comes a mesmerizing story in which the dark shades of betrayal, prejudice, fear, and guilt, are refracted along with the incandescent hues of passion and courage.”
Age: Adult; Genre: Fiction – Historical, Women, Romantic.
I bought this book because (aside from it being on sale) I read many really wonderful reviews, almost all of which were totally positive. Also, I really loved Kim Michele Richardson’s novel “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek,” which is also about the Blue people (as in the color of their skin, not their mood) of Kentucky’s Appalachia region. So, the idea of reading more fiction on this subject intrigued me. Now, one might think that a white person writing about people of color is not very PC these days, but we really have no choice in this particular matter. That is only because, according to all sources, there are no more Blues left, so I don’t see any way that we’ll ever get an “original voice” novel about these people (unless someone digs up a manuscript written by one of them before they vanished. Sounds pretty unlikely, if you ask me).
You will therefore forgive me if I do some comparisons between these two books. To begin with, while Richardson’s book was more about Cussy-Mary and her life bringing books to her neighbors, Morley’s book is really more of a love story. Not that Richardson’s book didn’t have a touch of romance, but it was downplayed in her book, and there was a lot more about the books and the many people on her rounds, as well as her struggles with being Blue, than about the man who falls in love with her. Here the relationship between Havens and Jubilee is absolutely front and center, with her struggles with being Blue as a subplot, albeit a fairly large one. As someone who isn’t really into romance novels, I was surprised at how little this focus bothered me. This is probably because Jubilee’s relationship with her family and the others exiled because of their skin color took almost equal billing in Morley’s story. Still, I would have preferred a little less angst and longings between these two than what I got here.
Regarding style, I do have to say that I enjoyed Morley’s writing very much. I found a very nice combination of poetic turns of phrases – especially when describing photographs that Havens wanted to take – mixed in with the dialog and descriptions. Havens really got the lions share of these, which made Jubilee seem less sophisticated as a character, but that didn’t bother me. However, I did feel that Richardson gave me much more of a Kentucky feel to her book than Morley did, while neither of them used much in the way of jargon or unconventional spellings to try to evoke that southern feel. Still, I could hear a Kentucky accent in Richardson’s book, but I didn’t get that hardly at all in Morley’s.
I also found it interesting how both authors found different ways to submit (for lack of a better word) their main protagonists to treatments for their blue skin condition. The treatment that Richardson gives Cussy-Mary makes her very sick, but Morley’s treatment for Jubilee doesn’t seem to bother her physically at all. However, both these women have deep psychological and emotional reactions to their skin turning pink, which is something that I ponder upon a great deal. Both of these books pose the question, if you’ve been the subject of derision because of your physical appearance, and you had the chance to change it, would you do it? Also, if you did choose to change how you looked in order to avoid conflict and become more “acceptable” to society, would you like the person you became, or would you prefer the person you’d been your whole life? Would you prefer to be someone who helps others understand that what is on the exterior should be ignored for who you are as a person, or would you prefer to conform so that you no longer have to fight that battle? In these days of increased discussions around the subject of identity (race, gender, etc.), these are certainly the types of questions we should all be asking ourselves.
While I believe both authors took a similar stance in how they approached this matter and these questions, I feel that Richardson did a slightly better job in portraying Cussy-Mary and her struggles than Morley did with Jubilee’s. I also think that Richardson succeeded in giving us a more Kentucky feel to her book than Morley was able to achieve. So, although I thoroughly enjoyed this novel – the writing, the characters, and the story line – and would therefore warmly recommend it, I think I’ll have to mark it down by just half a star, and give it – a still very healthy – four and a half out of five.
Pegasus Books released “The Last Blue” by Ilsa Morley on May 5, 2020. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Waterstones, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.