Book 1 – The Enduring Hills
He saw that a man could search forever outside of himself for the purpose of his life. But until he turned his eyes inward, he would never find the home he was seeking. It wasn’t off somewhere in mansions in the sky. It wasn’t in the city or in the country or on the face of the earth. It was right down inside of a man.
Giles, Janice Holt, The Enduring Hills, p. 254
After so many dystopian fantasies, it was kind of a relief to read this gentle story about country people. Although, the characters in this book had to endure the nearest things to a dystopian universe that have ever happened in this world; the Great Depression, followed by World War II.
Hod Pierce is a country boy living on Piney Ridge in the Kentucky hills. His family has lived there ever since an ancestor received the land as payment for his service in the Revolutionary War. Hod himself has dreams of leaving the Ridge, seeing the world, and becoming “somebody.”
Hod strives mightily to earn some money with the vague notion of furthering his education somehow. But just when he thinks he is about to get a little ahead, his father suffers from a debilitating illness that leaves the family in debt and takes a long time to recover from. Hod practically has to take over the farm, and things just keep getting worse and worse for him. He works for a while for the WPA, and later, hearing that draft legislation is likely to pass, he enlists in the army so he can pick what he wants to do. He does well there, being in a position to train recruits by the time war breaks out.
Just before his unit is to be sent to France, he goes home on leave, and on his way back to the base he meets a young lady on the bus and falls in love with her. After the war, they are married and live in the city, where he gets a job in a furniture plant. The real conflict for Hod comes when he feels he has lost his way in the process of trying to get along in the city.
Book 2 – Miss Willie
“You come up here on the ridge like you was God hisself, tellin’ ever’body do this an’ do that! Handin’ out what you knowed so high an’ mighty. Like nobody but you ever knowed e’er thing in the world! Nosin’ around into ever’body’s kitchen, squawkin’ over dishwater and flies an’ sich! Turnin’ up your nose at folks ‘cause they wasn’t as clean as you! Thinkin’ you was better than folks! What did you think ridge folks was? Pigs? Ridge folks is folks jist like ever’body else. They got feelin’s. They got rights. They got a right to live their own way!”
Giles, Janice Holt, Miss Willie, p. 256
Miss Willie is the story of a schoolteacher in the rural backwoods community of Piney Ridge in the Kentucky hills shortly after World War II. In subject matter and tone, it is reminiscent of Jesse Stuart’s The Thread That Runs So True and Catherine Marshall’s Christy.
A couple of years after Hod Pierce marries Mary, Hod and his cousin, Little Wells are talking about the trouble of trying to find a teacher for the community school at Big Springs. Mary suggests the aunt who raised her, Miss Willie, and experienced schoolteacher living in Texas. Mary writes Miss Willie offering her the job, and Miss Willie, who harbors an old wish to be a missionary, accepts.
Miss Willie comes to the Ridge and settles in to open the school. There are problems, of course. Some, like finding the proper home for herself and getting the school fit to have classes are fairly easily overcome by dint of hard work and the assistance of the community. Other things, like the school’s traditions, she must learn for herself little by little. And then there are more intractable problems, like Little Wells’ children Rose, who is using the time she is supposed to be supervising the younger children at their outside recesses to visit with the young moonshiner who is courting her, and Rufe, who seems to have it in for Miss Willie.
Miss Willie likes and generally gets along well with most of the people on the Ridge, but she has problems adjusting to the poorest and dirtiest of them. She tries to get the women to adopt better habits of hygiene and nutrition for their families, but without much success. But all in all the first school year goes well, and she has some success, although not as much as she would like. She finds herself falling for the widowed Little Wells, and he proposes, but she is not sure what her answer should be.
The second year begins better but falls apart during the fall when there is an outbreak of typhoid fever during the fall apparently caused by the open spring at the school that has worried Miss Willie since she first saw it. Fortunately, it is limited, and there are better treatments than were available at the time of the similar outbreak described in Christy, so only four of the children are affected, and none die this time. But Miss Willie wears herself out taking care of the sick children. She becomes depressed as the year gets colder and other tragedies appear.
Miss Willie has just about decided to go home to Texas and has just told Little Wells this when Rufe rears up out of the brush and accuses her of coming in and telling everybody “like God Almighty” what to do. He asks if they don’t have poor people and dirty people in Texas too, and of course Miss Willie has to admit to herself that they do, only she is better able to avoid them there. After Rufe’s diatribe, Miss Willie is finally able to decide what she needs to do.
Book 3 – Tara’s Healing
“I think your father must have been a man worth knowing. And I think you’ve lost a great deal by not knowing him.”
Giles, Janice Holt, Tara’s Healing, p. 101
Hod Pierce, briefly in the veterans’ hospital for some sort of ear operation, picks up his old army captain, Tara Cochrane, now a doctor but committed to the psych ward of the hospital for crippling anxiety attacks and sleeping pill addiction. Almost without a second thought, Hod invites the captain home with him to recover from his problems and find himself again.
During his stay with the Pierces, Tara is befriended by Hod’s neighbor, Jory Clark, a preacher in an obscure sect, the Brethren in Christ, a splinter group of the Mennonites. He learns to strip tobacco, goes hunting with Hod and Jory, encounters what appears to be a ghost, attempts to help the drunk Ferdy Jones find a regular job and get his life back on track, and helps Jory nurse Hod’s mother, Hattie, through her last illness.
Several issues left over from the story of Miss Willie are resolved. The mystery of the ghost is solved when they discover that Jory’s father has been a fugitive from the law since he first came to the ridge. Unfortunately, he forces a confrontation with Hod, Tara, and Wells Pierce when he imprisons Hod’s sister Sarah in the cave he has been preparing for a hideout in the secluded hollow where they first heard the ghost. They don’t intend on involving Jory, but he somehow finds out and comes with them.
And in the midst of all this Tara is finally able to forget his other problems, decide for himself about what he will do with his life after he leaves the ridge, and make up his mind to re-establish a relationship with his father, whom he hasn’t seen in years.
Title: The Piney Ridge Trilogy
Author: Janice Holt Giles
Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky
Genre: Historical Fiction