Friends of the Library by Susan Cushman
Book review by Tracy Carr
Small towns, big issues get help from touring author
By Tracy Carr
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
When Adele Covington hits the road for a book tour in some small Mississippi communities, it turns out she’s part author, part fairy godmother. The ten short stories in Susan Cushman’s Friends of the Library deal with big issues in small towns with heart and compassion.
Hosted by each site’s Friends of the Library, a non-profit advocacy group aimed at supporting public libraries through fundraising and promotion, Adele adapts her program to the group and, depending on their interests, discusses either her novel, which deals with a sexually abused graffiti artist, or her memoir, which details her experiences with her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s.
If the descriptions of Adele’s books sound a bit familiar, there’s a reason for that: Cushman herself embarked on a book tour of Mississippi libraries, hosted by the Friends, where she discussed her novel, Cherry Bomb, which features a sexually abused graffiti artist, and her memoir, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Friends of the Library is loosely based on Cushman’s real-life series of library programs, but with—presumably—a little more magic.
(By the way, there are 135 Friends of the Library groups in Mississippi. If you’re a library supporter and want to make a difference, join your local chapter!)
At each library, Adele meets someone who catches her eye. She strikes up a conversation, suggests a cup of coffee or lunch, and listens as the person unburdens their problems to her. Adele, who would be a busybody if she didn’t get great results, offers advice, connects people, and fixes their lives. Imagine if Touched by an Angel were set in Mississippi libraries.
Adele’s not fixing minor problems, either. The problems these folks have are serious: homelessness, alcoholism, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, eating disorders, and kidnapping, to name a few. Adele’s quick thinking, easygoing manner, and trustworthiness mean she’s able to offer big solutions to the big issues.
In Oxford, she meets Avery, a part-time library employee and full-time aspiring writer. He’s written a fantasy novel about a dystopian society where newborn babies are taken away from their parents and prominent families get to take their pick. The rest of the children grow up in warehouse orphanages, and later stage an uprising to find their birth parents.
Over coffee at Square Books, Adele listens to how closely Avery’s background and novel intersect and encourages him to enroll in a creative writing workshop, where he forms an immediate connection with a creative writing professor 20 years his senior. I won’t spoil things, but this book is all about happy endings.
The same goes for the homeless man in Eupora, the kidnapped girl in West Point, and the abused wife in Aberdeen: they all, with Adele’s help, find solid solutions to their life-threatening problems.
And that’s a good thing. Cushman doesn’t shy away from real-life issues, and while the way those issues are dealt with might be swift, it also gives us a little hope.
Do some of the problems wrap themselves up a little too neatly? Perhaps, but just as we don’t complain that a tv show’s conflict is resolved tidily at the end of each episode, we shouldn’t be bothered that Adele is always in the right place at the right time with the right words.
We could all use a little more sweetness and magic in our lives, and that’s what Friends of the Library delivers.
Tracy Carr is the Library Services Director at the Mississippi Library Commission in Jackson. She also serves as director of the Mississippi Center for the Book, and is a Mississippi Book Festival advisory board member.