When I had first picked up True Women, Janice Woods Windle's first novel about the passionate, tumultuous lives of her Texas ancestors, I was fascinated by the family tree on the endpapers. Among the photos included on the tree was one of the author's paternal grandmother, Laura Hoge Woods (1870-1966). Since Laura wasn't mentioned in the earlier novel, I had assumed - wrongly - that her life might not have been exciting enough to record.
Hill Country is Laura Woods' life story, one she herself might have written - and, indeed, did write, as this novel is based on the typewritten and handwritten memoirs she left to her granddaughter to complete. Born when the Texas Hill Country was still wild and untamed, Laura grows up in a ranch family living alongside the Blanco River. She and her siblings survive several dangerous encounters with Indians, but some of their neighbors aren't as lucky.
Choosing domestic stability over wild romance, Laura marries an older man with a love for horses - Peter Woods. If you've read True Women, you'll know that her husband's family was full of strong and strong-minded women, and Laura is no exception. Her strength comes through time and again: in order to increase their land holdings, Laura homesteads alone in a cabin for six months with only a drunk trapper for company.
The life of the Woods family closely intertwines with that of the Johnsons, their longtime neighbors. Rebekah, later the mother of US President Lyndon Johnson, becomes a lifelong friend of Laura's, and one interest shared between the two women is the exciting world of Hill Country politics. Though they cannot participate fully in politics themselves, they seek to hold power first through their husbands, and later through their sons. Reading Hill Country, one cannot help but wonder how many decisions of national importance first originated in the minds of Laura Woods or Rebekah Johnson, two women who rarely left the Texas hills where they were born.
Throughout Laura's long, eventful life she never backs down from a challenge, and with every word the author clearly expresses her admiration for her grandmother without being overly sentimental. Still, you might want to keep a few tissues handy as Laura's advancing age forces the story to rely more and more on the author's memories. In all, the story flows effortlessly from start to finish. One can't help but think that Laura Woods herself would be proud.
Leila Meacham's Roses, another meaty family saga set deep in the heart of Texas, has been receiving accolades since its publication earlier this year. If you loved Roses, as I did, I strongly recommend you pick up Janice Woods Windle's heartfelt fictional accounts of her courageous ancestors from the Texas Hill Country. All three books intertwine family reminiscences with documented historical fact, and the result is a triumph of storytelling that I found impossible to put down. Despite her close relationships to her novels' protagonists, Windle doesn't let nostalgia get in the way of character development. Will's War (2002) is the third volume in Windle's saga, and I wish that there were more.
Janice Woods Windle's Hill Country was published in paperback by Scribner in 2000 (currently out of print). Portions of this post, written up for Historical Tapestry's A-Z challenge, appeared previously in the Historical Novels Review.