The Ways of Water by Teresa H. Janssen
“Life, like a river, can take some sharp twists and turns. People can shift as much as a water’s course. There are reasons I broke my promises. I want them to be known.”
Thus begins the coming-of-age story of Josie Belle Gore, daughter of a Louisiana train engineer and a Texas seamstress, as she struggles to make a life for herself during one of the most turbulent periods of American history. “The Ways of Water” by Teresa H. Janssen is historical fiction inspired by Janssen’s grandmother’s life.
Set in the Southwest desert and California between 1907–21, Josie and her family are buffeted by world events — economic boom-and-bust, war and pandemic — that take Josie from New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto to Bisbee, Tucson, Los Angeles and finally post-World War I San Francisco.
Janssen intended to write a biography of her grandmother’s life based on interviews conducted at the nursing home in Seattle where she lived, but as she began writing, she realized there were too many gaps in the story and that it was better suited as historical fiction. Told in first person from Josie’s perspective, the novel does retain the intimate feeling of a diary.
Josie’s childhood feels like it is nothing more than a journey from one calamity to the next, some created by world events like Pancho Villa and civil unrest threatening their desert homestead in Chihuahua, and some by family dysfunction, like Papa losing his job with the railroad due to his drinking.
Josie’s journey is heart-wrenching, but not unusual for young girls and women in that day. When her mother needs to go to work to make ends meet, Josie foregoes schooling to take care of her brothers and sisters. When she leaves home at 16 rather than be married off to an older suitor in whom she has no interest, she finds work at Western Union and a boardinghouse to live in, run by a strict but caring matron who watches out for “her girls.” From there, Josie is aided at many crucial transitions by the kindness of strangers who take her in and treat her like family.
Janssen is a historian herself, and “The Ways of Water” is firmly grounded in the history of the times: railroad strikes, the Spanish flu epidemic, revolution and civil war in Mexico, the trauma of losing so many young men in the first World War and the impact of the war on society. If you enjoy well-researched historical fiction, put this engaging debut on your reading list.
You can also meet the author and hear about her process for turning fact into fiction when Janssen visits Village Books and Paper Dreams in Fairhaven to talk about “The Ways of Water” from 4–5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28 in the Readings Gallery.
Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager for Whatcom County Library System. Visit wcls.org to reserve a copy of “The Ways of Water” and to learn more about the power of sharing at the library.
(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Monday, January 8, 2024.)