What I wouldn't give for a gaggle of ancestors like Janice Woods Windle's. They make such marvelous fiction! Although, to tell the truth, perhaps all of us have these characters in our background and simply lack the documentation, or the energy, to search it out. Why, I remember tales about my Grandma Fahs . . . but, right, we're talking about Windle's good luck.
Still, while the author's pedigree, with its Texas setting and larger-than-life family stories, may have been a lucky stroke, every page of this extraordinary novel about an extraordinary woman must owe its accomplishment to hard labor and a mighty gift of re-creation. Laura Woods would have been proud of her granddaughter.
The leading lady of Hill Country, Laura was an intelligent, simple, complicated woman. Born about 1868, she led a Texas-sized life, jam-packed with experiences ranging from Indian raids to helping her dearest friend's baby boy, Lyndon Johnson, grow up to be President of the United States. She witnessed the community lynching of a white murderer, fell in love with a pariah, lived alone on a wilderness ranch, endured Mexican revolutionary violence and a horrible train wreck, helplessly watched a daughter's slide into schizophrenia, engaged in feminist and political activities, flew with Charles Lindbergh and, aged 93, moved to California. When that didn't work, she got herself back to Texas again, hampered by age but up to the challenge. Last seen, she's doing for herself once again, happily skipping a rest home in San Marcos.
During this long life, she wrote everything down: random thoughts, momentary furies, things she must do, things others should do, observed injustices, acknowledgment of the folly and error of those around her. She saved them all, along with carbons of letters giving advice to 11 American presidents and many other public personalities, and boxes full of photographs, newspaper articles, campaign materials from political contests she had worked in, and voluminous correspondence and personal files. In her seventies, she started to write a book about her life, and, if the purported excerpts in Hill Country are authentic, she possessed a writing style and wisdom equal to Windle's own.
That's saying a lot because, except for a grating tendency to use like for as, Windle's work is fresh and imaginative. She rarely settles for cliches, and her evocation of very old age seems remarkably real. (As far as I can tell, of course.)She has wisely chosen to tell Laura's story in novel form. This worked well with Windle's first novel True Women, which uses other feisty feminine forbears as the basis for punchy, adventurous storytelling. Hill Country repeats themes from the earlier book, but its power is intensified by the focus on a single, strong woman.
There's heft to this book, of the human kind that comes from the substance of a life lived in real time and historic circumstances. Some might call her a survivor, but that word is too passive for Laura. She doesn't just endure life, she triumphs over it.
Maude McDaniel is a freelance writer in Cumberland, Maryland.