Tuesday, April 20, 2010

J is for Janice

Janice Woods Windle's Hill Country is not only a favorite historical novel of mine, but it's the first review copy I ever requested - something I remember well. I had just taken on the job as American editor for the Historical Novels Review and, although I read a lot of historical fiction back then, I didn't know much about publishers or imprints. As soon as I learned that a sequel to True Women was out, I made my way to the Simon & Schuster website and discovered their online review copy request form. I typed in the information for Hill Country along with my mailing address, and within a week, a beautiful new paperback arrived in the mail. I read the book immediately, and it didn't disappoint.

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.


  1. Sounds fascinating! I've always wondered if/speculated that women who could not openly participate in politics did so by influencing their husbands' decisions. Even something so simple as making his favorite pie when he voiced a concern she had at town hall meetings. :) I'll have to pick these books up sometime!

  2. It was a really interesting read with regard to politics - not something I expected when I first picked up the novel. I hadn't realized how strong an influence LBJ's mother had on him. Both she and Laura Woods were heavily involved in state and local politics as well. I found a longer review from the Austin Chronicle that provides more info on how Laura tried to influence matters on the national level. Fascinating!

  3. That really does sound fascinating reading although I doubt I'll find it here.

  4. Oh, I really enjoyed Roses! Have added this to my TBR list!

  5. That does sound good. I love the fact that it was based on memoirs left to the author by her grandmother.

  6. Doug Salensky12:43 PM

    I'm trying to find the burial site for Laura Hoge Woods, great grand mother of Janice Woods Windle. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Doug & Millie Salensky