Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Miss Janice"

There are books which I cannot part with, no matter the trouble of packing for successive moves.  No matter that I've read the books in question many times.  Some authors, some stories, some fictional characters, strike such a rich chord that I know I will want to re-visit them yet again.

Such are the books which comprise The "Piney Ridge" trilogy by Janice Holt Giles.
I bought these years ago, one at a time, as they were offered by the Farm Journal Family Bookshelf.
[At the time, struggling to make ends meet on a less than prosperous farm, with little money for indulgences, it was an event to choose from the Bookshelf's catalog, mark the card, send it out, and then wait several weeks to receive my new book in our rural route mailbox]

My special favorite is the second in the series, "Miss Willie," which was the first one presented by the Bookshelf in their own edition.  I expect the response was so favorable they quickly arranged to publish the other two.
Miss Willie, a spinster schoolteacher is invited by her niece [married to a Kentucky man and moved with him "home" to the ridge where his family have lived since the Revolutionary War] to come, in a missionary spirit, to the ridge to teach in the one room school.

In telling these stories, Janice Holt Giles drew upon her own experience of moving in mid-life with her husband Henry to his ancestral home in Adair County, Kentucky. The books are rich in colloquial speech and customs, and the story threads spin out against a background of poverty and pride, staunch religious beliefs and human foolishness contrasted with the stubborness of people determined to do things as "they allus bin done."

 Loving and re-reading the stories as I have, it yet seemed a stretch of the imagination that the lifestyle portrayed could really have existed here in the late 1940's and 50's--the time in which I was growing up in rural Vermont.
I say "here" because it was a few miles away---over on the county line--that Janice Holt Giles set these fictional works.

Last Monday I clung to the arm-rest of the car door as J. drove the narrow roads which swoop up, down and around the ridges and plunge into the "hollers" along the endless creek beds that waver along the Adair/Casey county line. It wasn't difficult to imagine those same roads, unpaved still in the 50's and the isolation which must have been particular to the people living on the "ridges."

On Wednesday we had business at the bank in Columbia, the Adair county seat.  Marsha B. the assistant vice president [who set up our various accounts and saw to the transferring of funds when we moved here] was returning from her lunch break and stopped to ask how we were liking Kentucky and what we had managed to accomplish on our little farm.
We have learned that people in rural Kentucky have time to talk and that they ask questions in a neighborly way and truly want a detailed answer.
We catalogued the improvements made to the cottage, the 5 acre piece "turned" and seeded, the efforts underway in the garden. We told her of our Monday trip to the Mennonite-owned  greenhouses and our return on the back roads along the edge of Casey County and through the hamlet of Knifley.  I mentioned that I had never expected to live near the locale so richly described in these favorite books.

Marsha B. broke into a delighted smile. "I grew up in Knifley", she said, "and I remember Miss Janice.  She was an older lady when I was a girl, but she was still busy writing her books."

Marsha went on to recall the Saturday afternoon trips her family regularly took into Columbia for supplies.  "It seemed like we mostly bought bread because my mother and grandmother didn't make bread.  We shopped for sugar, flour, household things which we didn't grow or make ourselves."
She warmed to her memories telling us how the children, she and a brother, were allowed to choose a store-bought "treat"--a package of cookies or a bag of chips or candy to be shared.
"I could make my half of the treat last for several days," she said ruefully.  "My little brother gobbled his on the way home and then begged for part of mine each time I dipped into it during the week!"

She declared that Miss Janice took her writing seriously, carefully researched historical details for her nearly 20 novels.
"Miss Janice stayed close to home with her writing, but Mr. Giles---he got bored and wanted company, so he'd drive into Columbia and spend the afternoon."

Biographers of the Giles mention delicately that at some point Henry Giles became  a bit "jealous" of his wife's preoccupation with her writing--maybe even of her success.
In her autobiographical work "The Kinta Years--an Oklahoma Childhood" Janice Holt Giles creates a word portrait of her maternal grandmother.
" Let me say here that my grandmother was one of the world's best naggers, in the nicest way.  She was never hateful, high-tempered, ugly with her nagging. But she was very effective because she literally never quit. Her little darts went flying through the air and they pierced you as she laughed or joked or even as she sang. Even the hymns she sang as she worked were frequently chosen for their propaganda value.
Nice, sweet, endearing, good, clever, smart, highly intelligent, grand sense of humor, witty and full of fun, Catherine McGraw was nevertheless one of the world's worst and most successful naggers.
I feel no guilt in so describing Catherine McGraw. I recognize the same nice nagging propensities in myself.  When I want something very badly, or when I disapprove of something very strongly, my family hears about it pretty steadily.  I don't think I do as much of it as Catherine, but like her, I usually get my way."

Perhaps in spite of what was mostly a companionable marriage, Miss Janice's own admission is the key to Henry Giles little outings remembered by Marsha B.

The Giles home near Knifley is being restored as a museum, open on weekends from May to October.
J. has read several of "Miss Janice's" historical novels and enjoyed them, so we will be making a pilgrimage to the "Little Better Than Plumb" log house on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Visit the link below if you would like to see photos of Miss Janice and Henry or to learn more about her books.


  1. You are, indeed, making me homesick for Kentucky. We were there seven years and I can just see it with your wonderful descriptions! This is one author I actually haven't read and will have to find her books at the library here. I'm glad you're making time for seeing Kentucky as you work on your home there. Good for you!

  2. Years ago I read The Enduring Hills, and just loved it. But that was the only book my library had by Miss Giles, and I longed for more. After reading your wonderful post, I checked the county library where I now go, and they have SIX of her books! I can't wait to get back there and start on them! Thank you so much for reminding me of a forgotten and favored author. Now I feel rich at the thought of all the good reading ahead!

    You have a wonderful way of sparking interest and continuing the flow of delightful details in your writing, and it's always a happy moment to come here and find a new piece to read and savor.

    Also, I love hearing about how kindly and friendly the people are there in Kentucky. Life truly is better in the Heartland, away from the hectic urbanized areas.

    I see the verification word below is ACHES ! How appropriate, for I am aching along with you from all the spring gardening, digging, and I too have been painting. But the aches will be worth it when we finally have a rest and survey all our accomplishments. Hang in there!

  3. That was a truly lovely piece of writing. I must look into 'Miss Janice's' work. I've not heard of her before. Thank you.