Book Reviews

The Enduring Hills

 

Miss Willie

 

Tara's Healing

 

40 acres and No Mule

 

The Kentuckians

 

The Plum Thicket

 

Hill Man

 

Hannah Fowler

 

The Believers

 

The Land Beyond the Mountains

 

Johnny Osage

 

Savanna

 

Voyage to Santa Fe

 

Run Me a River

 

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The Piney Ridge Trilogy, Janice Holt Giles’ first three novels, are set in Adair County, Kentucky.  The search for identity theme binds the Piney Ridge Trilogy novels together.  There are other common themes in the three novels.  They are sense of heritage, isolation and poverty and illiteracy, and sense of community.  These books, read as a series, give a good picture of rural Kentucky hill country during 1920-1940.  I encourage you to read them
 
 

The Enduring Hills

Reviewed by Clara Metzmeier, Campbellsville, Ky.

President of The Giles Society

The first novel Giles wrote was The Enduring Hills, published in 1950 by Westminister Press.  It tells of Hod Pierce’s youth in Adair County, his restless eagerness to leave the place of his birth, his enlistment in the Army and service during World War II, and his meeting and subsequent marriage to Mary Hogan.  The novel tells of their life together in Louisville, Kentucky where they both were successful in their chosen careers but where both – especially Hod – felt unfulfilled spiritually.  When the novel ends, the reader knows the Pierces will return to Wishful Hollow on Piney Ridge.

The   novel is still popular and a good read because it not only parallels the early story of Janice and Henry Giles but also shows people working through problems in order to achieve their dreams.  Furthermore, Giles tells a good story.

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Miss Willie

Reviewed by Clara Metzmeier, Campbellsville, Ky.

President of The Giles Society

Miss Willie, the second book in the trilogy, is the story of Willie Payne, Mary Hogan Pierce’s aunt, who comes to Piney Ridge to teach school and to help the Ridge people have a better way of life.  She reveals to the reader that she has another motive for coming to Piney Ridge.  She is a lonely person.  

It takes a long time for Miss Willie to discover that the Ridge people, whose ways she at first finds appalling, have their own beauty and dignity and that some of her efforts to reform them are ill conceived.  Her warmth and generosity and humor help her bridge the gap and find love and fulfillment on Piney Ridge.

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Tara’s Healing

Reviewed by Clara Metzmeier, Campbellsville, Ky.

President of The Giles Society

Tara Cochrane comes to Piney Ridge at Hod’s invitation, to regain his health – a rebirth process.  Dr. Cochrane has suffered a nervous breakdown; Hod feels that the love and concern of friends and the tranquility of the place will help restore Tara’s health. 

On Piney Ridge Tara meets Jory, a minister of the Church of the Brethren of Christ, a sect popularly known as the White Caps because of the little caps worn by the women members.  Jory’s selfless love for humanity helps Tara rise above his despair and find a path of service and accomplishment.  Healed himself, he can go on to heal others.

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40 Acres and No Mule

Reviewed by Mike Crain, Lexington, Ky.

Member of the Giles Board

Expecting the unexpected would have been a good philosophy for Janice Holt Giles to embrace as she and her husband Henry left Louisville and moved to a rocky farm in the hills of north Adair County, near Knifley, Ky. It was post World War II in the still Depression-scarred Appalachian hills.  Generations of Henry's family had lived in this area since the settlement of Kentucky in the late 1700s.  Henry had grown up in this region but Janice was "from off" and would remain an "outsider" for some for the remainder of her life

Janice would in 1950-51 write her fourth book "40 Acres and No Mule" (published in 1952) as almost a fictional account of her experiences those first eighteen months of her life in the hills and hollows she would come to embrace in her writings and in her life.  Janice captured her "stumblings and offendings" as she learned the customs, ways, and mores of the "family-clan."

The dust jacket of a 1967 printing of this book makes the following insightful comments.

"During the first year (of Janice in these hills) Janice learned a lot - concerning her neighbors, herself, and people in general...  (40 Acres and No Mule) does more to bring alive the section of the country now known as Appalachia than a half dozen surveys.  40 Acres and No Mule is a firsthand report by a woman who helped to farm that barren land and who has lived among its shy, proud, courteous, stubborn people and come to feel one of them."

Perhaps there is no greater way to live than to adapt to your society, climate, and culture and see it for what it is and ourselves for who we are.  Concepts, actions, inter-actions, being a neighbor, generosity, religion, family, and so much more dictates who these people were.  Janice captured this and much more in this book and challenges us to see who we are and from whence we come.

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The Kentuckians

(The Kentuckians is the first book in a ten-book pioneer series, written over a number of years.  Other books (not part of the series) were written in between.  This review is excerpted from the flap of The Kentuckians, Book Club Edition, Houghton-Mifflin, 1953)

This book about the people who first straggled through Cumberland Gap and carved their farms from the primeval forest makes the reader experience the danger and beauty of life on the American frontier.  For the men who settled Kentucky were the first real American Frontiersmen.  Many of them were hunters in search of escape from a civilization ever advancing into space and freedom – like David Cooper, who had hunted the Kentucky wilderness with Daniel Boone before the first settlers had crossed the Appalachians.

No love of land or home or woman had been strong enough to hold David, until he met Bethia.  It was for her he cleared his patch of forest, planted crops, and built a cabin.  Too late, he learned that the woman he had dreamed of marrying was the wife of his enemy.

David and Bethia belonged to a generation that never knew or expected security, and the background of their story is one of violence and struggle.  During the Revolution, the Kentuckians, outnumbered and ill-equipped, were hard put to defend their stockaded forts against constant attack.  And although united in war against the British and the Indians, the settlers were at odds among themselves.  Many, including Boone himself, held land grants from Judge Henderson’s Transylvania Company.  Others, like David, based their claims on the authority of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Few people today remember the existence of the Transylvania Company and fewer still realize how close Henderson came to winning out over George Rogers Clark and the Virginia homesteaders, giving us the State of Transylvania instead of the State of Kentucky.

Giles studies the journals of the early Kentuckians and tells their story in their own easy-flowing, cadenced prose, a prose that is often half poetry.  Only three characters central to this novel are fictional – the rest are completely authentic.

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The Plum Thicket

Reviewed by Mike Crain, Lexington Ky.

Member of the Giles Board

This book by Janice Holt Giles has a different type of suspense than Janice's writings generally contain. This fictionalized autobiographical story of one summer of a young girl's life parallels some of Janice's childhood events of visiting family. The suspense did not occur in her family, thank goodness. The fun of a child exploring and enjoying the warm summer days reminds many of us of long ago childhoods.  Memories we will always cherish and ones that Janice captures in her prose.  

Janice states (chapter 2, page 8)

“... most important, I think, is the simple fact that I was there, I was eight years old, and the events of the summer unrolled before me, around me, within me, at a time when I was old enough to bear witness to them, but not old enough yet to sense all their meaning. There is thus in my remembering a mixture of the innocence of the child, who frequently did not understand, and the wisdom of the woman who now understands it all.”

How much of our childhood memory is still cluttered with that which we did not understand then and yet now understand it all too well or with still a twinge of innocence?

On the dust jacket of the third printing of The Plum Thicket “ (1954) it says: 

The Plum Thicket . . .with the startling vividness and intensity of a summer thunderstorm that shatters the peaceful serenity of a cloudless day, is the story of a golden summer and its violent climax. Janice Holt Giles knows and understands the undercurrents and fragile moments of a child's life and through the perceptive eyes of Katie Rogers she paints the rich background of a southern summer in warm detail.”

 

Janice allows Katie's grandfather to give so much wisdom about life when he states "...the thing is, one can't have life whole. At best we must deal with fragments, little things, one thing at a time ... little pieces of happiness or sorrow; little bits of joy or grief; little shards of grace and ugliness. One has to put them together, glue and paste and stick all the little pieces together as best one can, to give meaning to the whole. The cracks nearly always show, but in the end they are part of the whole, too." (chapter 25, page 281)

Aren't we all a piece of the whole of humanity - cracks and all?

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Hill Man

Reviewed by Clara Metzmeier, Campbellsville, Ky.

President of The Giles Society

 

Hill Man, written by Janice Holt Giles in 1951, was published in 1954 in paper back format under the pseudonym of John Garth.  The novel is a realistic presentation of rural poverty in the 1920s. It is also the story of Rady Cromwell, first a boy and then a man, who is determined to “get ahead” in life.  He makes opportunities for himself, takes advantage of situations and people to get ahead.

The narrator, a lifelong friend of Rady Cromwell, is the laid-back hill man.  He observes Rady in his pursuit of land and money.  He tells the reader how Rady got two farms and how he lost both farms.  He ends the narrative by telling the reader that Rady will start over at the Abbott farm, the place where he began.

Wade Hall in the forward to the 2000 printing of the novel states:

“Although Hill Man is one of Giles’s early novels, by the time she wrote it she had already mastered the speech and folkways of Henry’s hill people and uses them convincingly and without condescension in this novel.  Here is a veritable folk community revealed, a cultural backwater that is like a living museum showing life as it was lived a century and more ago.”

Hall continues his praise of the novel when he says that “despite its setting in the mid-1920s and its authorship in the 1950s, Hill Man is a contemporary novel, with the timeless themes and patterns and the elemental starkness of a Greek tragedy.”

Giles is a literary archivist as she preserves in words the culture of northern Adair County and surrounding counties in times past.  For her preservation and documentation of rural Kentucky readers are grateful.

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Hannah Fowler

Reviewed by Connie Mills, Bowling Green, Ky.

Retired member of the Giles Board

 

She was big woman—browned by the sun and sturdy. And she was alone. When the man spoke she was startled, more surprised than scared, for she had not heard his approach to the spring in this Kentucky wilderness.

So begins the story of Hannah Moore and Tice Fowler.  It is a story of man meets woman, man marries woman, then they fall in love and live happily ever after. Of course, along the way their path is marked by triumphs and hard times.

Tice discovered that Hannah was not truly alone; her father lay injured in a camp nearby. Both of them used all the remedies they knew, slippery elm and fat meat, but could not save Samuel. After burying him in an unmarked grave, Tice took Hannah  to Ben Logan’s fort, near his own land, where she was welcomed. Single men around the fort were especially glad to meet this new woman.  In a short time Hannah, desperate to escape the clutter and clatter of the fort and the attentions of her suitors, asked Tice to marry her and take her to his own place. He did.

Proving a claim, building a house, growing enough to feed themselves and their stock required unending work. But in many ways that came easier to Hannah than adjusting to her new life as Tice’s wife. Within the next two years she birthed a lively daughter, Jane, and the family thrived despite hardships like the harsh winter of 1779.

One day while Tice and Jane visited neighbors some miles away Hannah worked contently at her loom. Suddenly something made her turn her head, only to find two Indians standing within the door. She remembered Tice’s telling her that the natives respected bravery so she tried not to show her fear; the tactic worked. With the homestead burning behind her Hannah set off with her captors. Thoughts of the child she was carrying strengthened her as they traveled northward to the Ohio River. On the fourth day the younger man left to hunt buffalo, leaving behind the tired Shawnee and Hannah in a rock shelter.  She seized her opportunity while the old one slept, killed him and escaped.

Hannah’s re-union with Tice and Jane was a joyous one. Although they faced rebuilding their home Hannah’s captivity and the strong possibility that she might be killed made both Hannah and Tice realize how much each meant to the other. Together they could face the future and work on providing a good life on their Kentucky farm.

Hannah Fowler contains plenty of action and understated romance but it is foremost a character study of the title character. When introduced Hannah is a strong young woman but unformed in many ways. Conversing with anyone came hard for her and opening up emotionally to another she had never done nor wanted to do. Even at the end of the novel Hannah is a reticent, quiet woman but knows her own vulnerability and is open to those who love her. She is like the trees so often mentioned in the book: substantial, good for countless uses, sometimes stark but always beautiful. She can bend in the wind but her roots are deeply planted.

Fifty years have passed since Hannah Fowler was first published. It still remains one of Janice Holt Giles’s best novels. The seamless blending of Kentucky’s early history and the deft characterizations make it enjoyable for the first time reader or for someone who is reading it for the fourth time. “Hit’s sartain!”

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The Believers

Reviewed by Connie Mills, Bowling Green, Ky.

Retired member of the Giles Board

 

Got history? Janice Holt Giles got it, and got it right. Nowhere is this more evident than in her novel The BelieversThe Believers continues the saga of the Fowler and Cooper families, early pioneers in central Kentucky. Rebecca Fowler, second daughter of Hannah and Tice Fowler, narrates the story of her life with Richard Cooper, son of David and Bethia Cooper. In many ways she is like her mother, although not as reticent; he is like his father, though less patient and tolerant.


From childhood Rebecca saw Richard as strong, sober, earnest and sometimes as stubborn as a mule. The very traits that made Richard lovable also led to his enchantment with the preaching of Brother Rankin. After attending a camp meeting held at the Gasper River in Logan County, Richard became increasingly concerned with saving his soul and, following the example of Brother Rankin, decided to sell what he had and join the developing community of Shakers at South Union. Rebecca, his dutiful wife, did as expected and followed her husband although she shared none of his inspiration and zeal.

 

Rebecca found the Shaker way of life good and bad. The industry and orderliness of the community suited her but the requirement of celibacy, separating her from Richard, was abhorrent. While Richard embraced every aspect of the new religion Rebecca became more and more alienated and eventually realized that she was unwilling to sacrifice her life for his beliefs. Using the Kentucky law that allowed divorce if one's spouse became a Shaker, Rebecca sought a new life on the new frontier of Missouri.


The Believers might be appreciated simply as an enjoyable romantic novel but it also depicts life in the West in the early 1800s exceptionally well. The South Union Shaker journals served as Giles' primary resource for life in the community; the organization, the habits, the religious practices and the occupations of the Shakers are faithfully detailed just as the Shakers recorded them. But occurrences in the outside world, such as the New Madrid earthquake of 1811, also figure into the action.  The awesome spirit of revivalism that swept Kentucky plays a prominent part in the story. More subtly, Giles showed changes in Kentucky life styles. For instance, Richard and Rebecca built a house of planed timber rather than a log one and Janie, Rebecca's sister, insisted on a silk wedding dress even though her father Tice had to travel to Louisville to buy the silk.

 
If you haven't read The Believers treat yourself and do so. If you read it long ago you should re-read it; it stands the test of time. If you have time and opportunity you should also vist the South Union Shaker Museum in Logan County and the Kentucky Library in Bowling Green where Janice researched her book. The trip will help you realize just how well she "got history"!

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The Land Beyond the Mountains

Reviewed by Sally Ann Strickler, Bowling Green, Ky.

Member of the Giles Board

 

In the Foreword to Janice Holt Giles’ novel The Land Beyond the Mountains Giles notes: “Cartwright’s Mill is an entirely imaginary place. But if I look out the big window in my living room the Green River valley outstretched before me has much the appearance of the valley in which Cassius Cartwright settled; and while the inhabitants of Cartwright’s Mill are wholly imaginary also, my neighbors are the descendants of just such people. All the other people in this book are real.”


In The Land Beyond the Mountains Giles tells the story of the conspiracy involving General James Wilkinson who, through a 1783 trade deal with the Spanish authorities concerning a monopoly on the Mississippi River, sought to detach Kentucky from Virginia and the United States to create an empire with Wilkinson himself as “the Washington of the West.”


Giles does not fail her readers as she presents the elements of her fiction we always expect: an exciting plot and fascinating characters, all based on intensive research documenting the background of her historical fiction. In this case she cites two Ph.D. dissertations, various material from the Kentucky Historical Society and a pamphlet from columnist Allan Trout’s personal library as assisting in her design of characters, plot, and setting. Giles combines fictional and historical people from 1783 to 1792 to portray settlers in frontier Kentucky as they seek and achieve statehood.


The narrator of The Land Beyond the Mountains, Cass Cartwright, is a wealthy, educated Virginian who crossed the mountains into Kentucky to establish a settlement on the Green River. Giles locates Cartwright’s Mill in Spout Springs Hollow and skillfully uses her own experiences there to describe early Kentucky folklife.


In Cartwright Giles sought to carry the generations of Fowler and Cooper — characters in her previous novels — into the settlement of the American West. Additional settlers of Cartwright’s Mill add interest to the story.


Two women characters introduced into the plot by Giles add excitement to the story: Rachel Cabot, a young Philadelphia Quaker widow whose husband has been killed by Indians; and Tattie Drake, a street waif who is rescued by Cartwright in Philadelphia and placed in his care at his frontier settlement. Both women have special places in Cass Cartwright’s life as he serves as a leader in the struggle for Kentucky’s statehood.


The Land Beyond the Mountains (1959) is the fourth in the series of novels that constitute Giles’ contribution to the early history of Kentucky. Along with The Kentuckians (1953), Hannah Fowler (1956), and The Believers (1957), these novels are among the best-loved of Giles’ numerous literary works.

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Johnny Osage

Reviewed by

Connie Mills

The Fowler Family story continued westward with Johnny Osage, originally published in 1960 with later reprints. In it Janice Holt Giles departed from her usual pattern to feature a male as the central character, Johnny Fowler who was known as Johnny Osage. Johnny, son of Tice and Hannah Fowler and youngest brother of Rebecca Fowler Burke, came by his nickname because of his friendship with members of the Osage tribe. Along with his brother-in-law Stephen Burke, he ran a trading post in the western reaches of the Arkansas Territory.

In 1821 the Arkansas Territory was rapidly changing. None were more affected by those changes than the Osages who were being squeezed and pinched by white settlers, their time-old enemies, the Pawnees, and by the Cherokees, newly removed west of the Mississippi by the U. S. government. Their friend Johnny Fowler understood the threat and attempted to act as their intermediary with the U. S. Army which represented law and order in the Territory.

At the same time Johnny could appreciate the efforts of the white settlers in building a new place for themselves. While he was not enthralled with New England missionaries attempting to establish their church and a school near his trading post, he did admire their diligence and steadfastness. One of them, lovely and opinionated Judith Lowell quickly figured into all of Johnny’s thoughts and actions. But even her love and convictions could not keep him from the ultimate showdown with Blade, the notorious leader of the Cherokees.

Johnny Osage is the story of conflict with plenty of action but it is more about emotional conflict of people caught between two cultures and the past versus the present. In one rather poignant scene Rebecca said to her brother “May in Kentucky…everybody in the world ought to be in Kentucky in May…I expect everyone is always homesick for the past. I have the best right here and now, but one must always have a place in the heart to go back to, Johnny.” Rebecca remembered not just a different place but a different time, her childhood when things appeared much simpler. On the other hand, the past haunted Johnny, driving him toward avenging a grievous loss.

My react to Johnny Osage is rather mixed. I like the setting very much for the Arkansas Territory has not be over used in frontier novels. The characters are well drawn, especially some of the minor ones. And I learned more about the Fowler Family which I came to admire in Hannah Fowler and The Believers. The depiction of the Osage culture is very interesting and detailed. But occasionally descriptions are too long and there’s not enough frontier rough ‘n’ tough cussedness. My biggest complaint is that the ending is wrong, much too “storybook”! Of course, you’ll have to read Johnny Osage to see if you agree with me or Janice or her editors.

 

Savanna

Reviewed by

Sally Ann Strickler.

Janice Holt Giles’ novel Savanna, published in 1961, the sixth of her novels of the American frontier, is set in a U.S. Army post established in 1824 in the Arkansas Territory, now the state of Oklahoma. Savanna Fowler’s mother was Piney Cartwright, the eldest daughter of Cassius and Tattie Cartwright of the Green River Valley in Kentucky. Her father was Matthew Fowler, second son of Hannah and Matthias Fowler, all characters well known to Giles’ readers.

Giles describes Savanna as “radiantly and glowingly lovely” with color like that of a ripening peach – aglow under gold, giving it a tawny look, with splendid, intensely expressive brilliant black eyes and beautiful flyaway hair.

In her biography of Giles, Diane Watkins Stuart suggests that Savanna was contrived in the image of Giles’ daughter Libby. Janice wrote, “For me a beautiful woman always looks like my daughter.” Stuart also supposes that Giles’ familiarity with Savanna’s frontier life in the novel may well have arisen from the diary of Janice’s grandmother Catherine McGraw during her pioneering days as a young bride in western Arkansas.

The novel follows the life of beautiful, willfully independent Savanna through her youthful marriage to an army major, Thomas Brook, her attempts to run several frontier trading posts, and her second marriage to an enlisted man, Abe Lathrope, and its tragic conclusion when he is killed by the Indians.

The several predicaments Savanna finds herself recklessly involved in are stormily described by Abe: “But do you think, Savanna, that you alone in all creation can manage things and solve things?” Abe warns her: “Try to remember that you aren’t the only person on earth with a mind and a will. Let someone else decide a few things.”

Throughout her experiences with the frontier army, Savanna faced whatever came with a strong faith in herself, and life. Although difficulties, hardships, and setbacks are always a challenge to her, Savanna is fortunately supported loyally by black Preacher, his wife Kizzy, and their son Widgie, all presented to Savanna by her first husband Major Brook. Savanna also finds needed assistance from her lifelong friend David Holt, the young post surgeon, a character based on Giles’ own kinsman of the same name who was in fact post surgeon at Fort Gibson during the period of time covered by the novel.

Other characters portrayed vividly by Giles include the men and their wives stationed at Fort Gibson, the colorful “camp followers,” and historical figures such as Sam Houston and Auguste Chouteau.

Giles fills the novel with exacting descriptive passages of horse races (Savanna wins) and ill-fated cavalry expeditions (Savanna experiences a number of losses). One contemporary (1962) review of Savanna found fault with the frank speech Giles uses which might offend her faithful readers. But no reviewers doubted that Savanna continued Giles’ “sturdy series.” In ten years Giles had published eleven novels, perpetuating her enduring niche in American literature.
 

 

Voyage to Santa Fe

Reviewed by

Sally Ann Strickler.

Voyage to Santa Fe is not only a journey in time and distance, but Judith Fowler’s voyage into her own heart and mind. Judith and Johnny have been married less than a year when, in the spring of 1823, they start the long journey across the plains from the Arkansas Territory to Santa Fe — the journey that is to be the test of their marriage.

Johnny Fowler (sometimes known as “Johnny Osage” because of his close friendship with the Osage Indians) has staked everything on his ability to guide a mule train over an unmarked trail through cruel and dangerous country. The wagons are loaded with the trade goods that are to make his fortune and driven by men distinguished more for toughness than for tractability. The muleskinners grumble at Johnny’s autocratic discipline and resent the presence of his young wife, the only woman in the wagon train.

A strange journey for a gentle New England girl, but there is spirit and self-reliance behind Judith’s gentleness. Through hardship, danger, and disappointment she must strive to find her way to a true understanding and acceptance of her husband’s way of life and to the realization that it is to be her way, too.

Voyage to Santa Fe is a story of violence and death, as the mule train is imperiled by flood and drought, by wild animals and men, and by treachery within its own ranks. And it is also the story of a marriage strengthened through danger and adversity faced together with courage and mutual trust. Here is a book with warmth and charm, skillfully told with sustained interest. It ranks with the best of Janice Holt Giles’s novels of the American frontier.
 

 

Run Me a River

Reviewed by

Sally Ann Strickler.

Janice Holt Giles dedicates this adventure novel “To all the generations of Green River people” and all of us who fall into that category especially enjoy this wonderful story.

Captain Bo Cartwright, grandson of Cassius Cartwright, runs his steamboat the “Rambler” down the Green from Bowling Green, Kentucky, to Evansville, Indiana, September 18-22, 1861, dodging a Federal gunboat and Confederate soldiers as Civil War clouds gather over Kentucky.

Giles’ skill in depicting fascinating characters introduces us to Bo’s hearty steamboat crew as well as 16-year-old Phoebe Cole and her Shakesperian actor grandfather, Sir Henry Cole. The two are refugees from a defunct traveling road show and add to the drama as Bo and the “Rambler” run the gauntlet of the perilous wartime Green.

As the “Rambler” makes its way down the river, Giles presents a number of interesting folks including old “Doc” King who lives on a tied-up shanty boat and who would dispense medical help if he wasn’t drunk; lockmaster Ben Bledsoe who nervously keeps his River Lock #2 operating while he worries about the approaching Federals and the Confederates; and “Judge” Burke Hafner, a long time state legislator now keeper of a river town general store — who advises Bo of the political situation involving Kentucky’s nominal neutrality and the “civil war in our own state house!”

Throughout this exciting story, the relationship between Bo and Phoebe grows from friendship to real affection with Bo making future plans for Miss Phoebe as well as the “Rambler”.

As always, Janice Holt Giles writes action-filled fiction, this time on a background reflecting her love of Kentucky’s Green River country. She is at her best as she weaves a story of the river and its meaning for those who live on it and beside it.

 

 

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