Janice Holt Giles (1905–1979)
Janice Holt Giles was a popular and prolific autobiographer and author of historical fiction, much of which addresses themes relating to the rural Appalachian foothills of south-central Kentucky, her adopted home state. Although never quite achieving the stature of literary contemporaries such as Marjorie Rawlings, Jesse Stuart, or Eudora Welty, she was, nevertheless, an accomplished and critically acclaimed writer whose books were frequent bestsellers.
Janice Meredith Holt was born in Altus (Franklin County) on March 28, 1905. She was the second child of John Albert Holt and Lucy Elizabeth McGraw Holt, both of whom were educators. The Holts’ first child died at birth. Two other children, a daughter and son, were born in 1907 and 1910. Janice Meredith was to have been named Mary Catherine (which became her sister’s name) in honor of her grandmothers, but, impulsively (and perhaps presciently), her mother chose instead to name her after the title of Paul Leicester Ford’s historical novel Janice Meredith: A Story of the American Revolution (1899).
In about 1905, the Holt family moved to Haileyville, Oklahoma Territory, 130 miles southwest of Altus, then in 1909 to Kinta, Oklahoma, where they lived until 1917, when they settled in Fort Smith (Sebastian County). Janice Holt graduated from Fort Smith High School in 1922. In 1923, she married Otto Moore. In 1924, her only child, Elizabeth Ann (Libby) Moore, was born. From the beginning, the marriage was unhappy. The couple became increasingly estranged and finally divorced in 1939.
After the divorce, and having worked for several years as a religious educator in Little Rock (Pulaski County), Giles accepted a position as director of religious education at a church in Frankfort, Kentucky. She soon resigned the position and returned to Arkansas to help care for her ailing father, who died in 1940. In 1941, she moved back to Kentucky, this time to work as secretary to the dean of the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. On July 12, 1943, she became acquainted with a soldier, Kentucky native Henry Giles, on a long bus trip. They corresponded during his tour of duty in Europe in World War II. They married on October 11, 1945—the day he returned to the United States after the war—despite not having seen each other for almost two years.
The Gileses made their home in Louisville, Kentucky, where Janice continued working at the seminary, while Henry labored at a factory job during the day and studied at night to complete his high school education. Giles began writing her first novel, The Enduring Hills, in 1946. The book, which was published in 1950, was based on Henry’s stories about—and Janice’s experiences with—his family in the Knifley community in rural Adair County, Kentucky.
In 1949, the Gileses moved to Knifley, where they stayed for the rest of their lives. Giles continued to write, both for intellectual stimulation and financial remuneration, developing a work process that enabled her to complete more than twenty published books during the most productive years of her nearly three-decade-long career. The books, most of which were historical fiction, sold millions of copies and received generally favorable critical reviews. Giles engaged in extensive research to ensure the authenticity of her novels. Her headstone is engraved with the epithet “Kentucky Author,” reflecting the recurring place-based themes in her best-known works, which include the fictional “Piney Ridge” trilogy of The Enduring Hills (1950), Miss Willie (1951), and Tara’s Healing (1951), and the autobiographical 40 Acres and No Mule (1952) and A Little Better than Plumb (1963). However, throughout her life, Giles maintained close connections with her family in Arkansas, visited frequently, and wrote two novels set in her home state, The Plum Thicket (1954) and Johnny Osage (1960). Henry Giles, too, became a writer. Although less successful in his literary endeavors than Janice, he collaborated with her and contributed to her work.
In fact, the “Kentucky Author” epithet is somewhat misleading. Certainly, Giles received literary inspiration from her adopted home state and its people, but even a cursory examination of her body of work reveals a wide range of themes, not all of which have to do with Kentucky, although some of her recurring characters originated there. Voyage to Santa Fe (1962), The Great Adventure (1966), and Six-Horse Hitch (1969) are historical novels set in the American West. The autobiography The Kinta Years (1973) is an account of her early childhood in Oklahoma. The Damned Engineers (1970) is a work of nonfiction based on Henry Giles’s experiences with the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion in Europe during the climactic final years of World War II.
Janice Holt Giles suffered from cardiovascular problems, what she called a “crocky heart,” during her later years and died of congestive heart failure on June 1, 1979. She is interred at Caldwell Chapel Cemetery in Adair County, Kentucky, near her beloved Spout Springs home, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Many of Giles’s books are still in print, republished by the University Press of Kentucky. The Giles Society works to preserve the literary heritage of both Janice and Henry Giles and to maintain their historic log home, which is open to visitors. In 2014, Janice Holt Giles was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.
For additional information:
Cox, Bonnie Jean. “Janice Holt Giles.” In The Kentucky Encyclopedia, edited by John E. Kleber. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992.
Giles, Henry E., and Janice Holt Giles. Around Our House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.
Giles, Janice Holt. The Kinta Years: An Oklahoma Childhood. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
Janice Holt Giles Collection. Manuscripts and Folklife Archives. Kentucky Library and Museum. Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky. Finding aid online at http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1992&context=dlsc_mss_fin_aid (accessed September 15, 2020).
Stuart, Dianne Watkins. Janice Holt Giles: A Writer’s Life. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
Watkins, Dianne, ed. Hello, Janice: The Wartime Letters of Henry Giles. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992.
Greg A. Phelps
Lindsey Wilson College
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