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New Books Network Interview: Teresa H. Janssen

Against a desert background, a young person in early 20th-century clothing examines the sky through binoculars

For my latest New Books Network interview, I spoke with Teresa H, Janssen about her debut novel, The Ways of Water. Although in some ways the problems that faced her ancestors—whose story inspired the novel—were very different from those survived by my own, in other ways the situation she describes evoked memories of tales I hadn’t heard since childhood.

I am the great-granddaughter of a long line of herring fishermen, who plied the North Sea in all weather from their home at the extreme northeastern corner of Scotland. My mother told stories about them when I was growing up, although the herring fishermen had long since passed on to the Great Ocean in the Sky, and the only descendant I knew well was my grandfather. He left Wick as a child, becoming a newspaper office boy, then working his way up to the position of managing editor.

But the few details I did cull from my mother’s stories pointed to an ancestral life of hardship: my great-grandfather died relatively young, leaving his wife with nine living children, the oldest of whom had just entered his teens. Jimmy, that oldest son, left school immediately, and my grandfather followed not long after, because someone had to support the family. That was in the 1910s or, at latest, the 1920s, and there were no social welfare programs to draw on.

Southwestern US desert landscape, rocks, sand, and vegetation against a clear blue sky

Water was the one thing that my ancestors could count on. Not so Janssen’s, who lived a hand-to-mouth existence in Arizona, New Mexico, and the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico—where they also experienced the Mexican Revolution of 1910 firsthand. As Janssen describes in our New Books Network interview, the great problem her heroine faced was drought. Read on to find out more.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Josie Belle Gore is only six years old when we meet her in 1908, yet her father has tied a rope around her waist and is lowering her into a dark well to retrieve a dead animal that is poisoning the water. The third daughter of a growing family, Josie has moved with her family from western Texas to Arizona, then eastward again, settling in the New Mexican desert region known as the Jornada del Muerto. Her father, a railroad engineer, spends much of his time away, and it is her mother who holds the family together through poverty, sickness, and drought.

From an early age, Josie learns that her lot in life is to subsume her own interests to those of her family. Although she yearns to become a teacher, even mastering basic literacy is a challenge in a region where schools are few and far between, household chores never-ending, and such basic needs as food and water not always met. As her father falls prey to alcoholism, loses one job after another, and repeatedly uproots the family in search of a better future, Josie clings to the principles her mother has inculcated in her—until one day, she realizes that the price for tolerating that life has risen too high.

Based on the life of the author’s grandmother, Josie’s story sounds grim, but the telling of it is not. Hauntingly beautiful in its evocation of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico, this novel will draw you in, even as it gives you a whole new appreciation of the hardships that many of our ancestors endured.

Photograph of the Jornada del Muerto by the National Trails Office, US National Park Service, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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