Janice Holt Giles–A Writer Needing to be rediscovered

See the source imageAt least a half dozen times in my life, I have read a book that was either a current best seller or was by a current best selling author. I am not opposed to reading best sellers, but neither am I drawn to a book because it is ranked #1 on the fiction or non-fiction list. I recognize lots of name of authors who are pouring out one top selling book after another, but I have little experience in reading them.
Maybe this is akin to my love of country roads, meaning those winding, twisting, tree and farm land lines roads that don’t show up on most maps and don’t lead to anywhere other than someone’s old homeplace.  Maybe it is akin to a love that I developed in my early youth where I embraced not only country music, which few or none of my classmates liked, but I embraced what was even then (the late 1960’s) the older, outdated, less noticed country music.  Even now, I rarely encounter anyone who remembers Moon Mulligan or Hawkshaw Hawkins.
It was also in my youth that I encountered a Kentucky writer by the name of Jesse Stuart.  I read Hie to the Hunters in my 9th grade year and have never recovered from a love of life with the Sparks family.  In fact, I have often “taught” that book to my junior high students, and the reading would be followed up by Jud Sparks Day where we would dress and, even better, eat like folks did in that book.  One Jesse Stuart book led to another and another.  For a long season in life, I assumed he was long forgotten, but discovered that both the University of Kentucky Press and the Jesse Stuart Foundation were busy keeping his books in print.
Without making the Kentucky connection, I stumbled upon and read a book titled A Little Better Than Plumb: A Biography of a House.
This is an account of how authors Janet Holt Giles and Henry Giles went about finding logs and lumber from old barns, log cabins, and other neglected structures in the hills of Kentucky.  From a wide assembly of such materials they constructed a log house nestled near a stream where they were able to enjoy a life of writing and contemplation.
Having once lived in a log house that I had built on a hill in a wooded tract of ten acres, the book was largely nostalgic for me.  I have never gotten over the loss of that home, that time in life, and the hopes and dreams I had there. (Family growth and school necessitated leaving that place.)
Among other things, I learned to my satisfaction that farming and raising your own hogs and chickens is not a grand thing to do.  On a more positive note, I learned that Janice Holt Giles had written quite a few novels.
Learning that she had written quite a few novels, I have looked around here and there for her books. These are not books one readily finds on the shelves of the local book franchises.  And keeping my eyes open as I go about to different used book sources, I have not seen her books very often either.  Then I received two books by Mrs. Giles from the University of Kentucky Press.They don’t often show up where I am looking. Thankfully, the University of Kentucky Press is keeping this Kentucky author’s books in print.
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The Believers is a great story that includes some real insights into frontier life in Kentucky, the Scots-Irish Calvinism/Presbyterianism of the rural folk, the bits and pieces of classical education some were privileged to have, and the effects of the more unusual offshoots of the Second Great Awakening.
Under men like James McGready in Kentucky and Asahel Nettleton back in the east, the Second Great Awakening was used to revive churches and reach the lost. But there were far more unusual and unorthodox and American-grown offshoots from the revival movement. In the book, there is some mention that Pastor Rankin, the circuit riding Presbyterian, had aligned himself with the New Lights. Things go down from there because he manages to persuade the Richard and Rebecca Cooper to move to the county in Kentucky where things were happening.
Very clearly, the religious emotionalism and fervor of the frontier revival created shock waves among the faithful.  The more traditional Christian churches were viewed as less spiritual, and the church members’ salvation was questioned unless they were experiencing some of the physical manifestations of the revivalists.
In time, Shaker missionaries show up and families start joining the Shaker Movement and adhering to the teachings of Mother Ann Lee.  Shakers are a religious oddity and curiosity among most Americans today.  People tour the old Shaker communities.  The song “Simple Gifts” is often remembered and enjoyed.  One would be prone to think that they were a short-lived, but generally pleasant religious community that existed in a utopian society for a time and then disappeared.  As brought out in the novel, there were plenty of good-hearted and honest folk in the Shaker community, but the community as a whole was tyrannical and controlling of both thought and actions.
In the story, Rebecca is the central character and narrator. (Her mother, Hannah Fowler is the subject of a prequel to this book titled Hannah Fowler.) Rebecca loves her husband dearly, and they both are devastated by the loss of two stillborn babies. Richard decides it is a judgment of God, so he abandons home and farm and takes his wife to join first a more “moderate” religious group. Then he is convinced that the Shaker way is the right way.

The key conflict now arises: Shakers don’t believe in marriage. Married couples are separated when they join the group. (Profound Thought: Maybe this is why this group failed to survive.)

Rebecca’s life in the Shaker community comprises the bulk of the story. She is a dutiful woman, mislead, but not suppressed in mind and spirit. This is truly the conflict of someone who wants to do what is right and traditional (as in obeying her husband), but is conflicted by what that involves.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers. I must admit that as a Christian of Presbyterian and Reformed persuasion. I kept wanting to step into the book and bring “chapter and verse” to those both oppressed by and indulging in Shaker beliefs.

My question is this: Why isn’t this woman’s books, especially this novel, out there in more places? I cannot wait for my wife and hopefully for my daughters to read it. It ranks up there with books like Wuthering Heights, Gone With the Wind, and others where strong women fight to survive.

This book will not be, Lord willing, my only Janice Holt Giles novel to read. The one next on the list for me is Run Me a River.  

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2 thoughts on “Janice Holt Giles–A Writer Needing to be rediscovered

  1. Why is it right and traditional for a woman to obey her husband? I’ve seen women married to “good” Presbyterian and Reformed men put down and disrespected. I have trouble with this idea.

    When I read the Song of Solomon, it seems as though the Heavenly Bridegroom wants to hear the voice of His beloved, urges the daughters of Jerusalem not to awake her until she is ready, praises her beauty and is eager to spend time with her.

    I have seen women emotionally downtrodden and squelched. Their needs unattended.

    The Heavenly Bridegroom is a Refuge and urges His Bride to confide in Him, to pour out her heart to Him. He encourages her to express herself. He loves her voice. He is available to her. He cherishes her. He shows her warmth and affection.

    • Your question is a good one. I have witnessed the blessing of Reformed theology putting pressure on men to be leaders in the home and church. But I have also witnessed how it has led to a suppression of women. Women are not allowed to teach, further their education, pursue careers, speak their minds, study theology, or correct men. I remember listening to and meeting Nancy Demoss Wolgemuth and thinking, “She would never have been allowed to use her teaching gifts in church circles I have been in.”
      The Janice Holt Giles book is a good take on this whole story. The wife, being a faithful Christian woman, really tried to obey and follow the lead of her husband. He was increasingly deluded and stupid. He basically forced his wife into the Shakers group. How and why should a woman submit to a husband who ceases in every way to be a husband?

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