The Plum Thicket

The Plum Thicket was Janice Holt Giles’s seventh book (her sixth novel) and the first to be set in her home state of Arkansas. It was first published in 1954 by Houghton Mifflin.

The Plum Thicket was a deviation from the anticipated continuation of a series of historical novels about the settlement of Kentucky, which had begun with the publication of The Kentuckians in 1953 and would resume with publication of Hannah Fowler (1956) and The Believers (1957). Giles felt compelled to write the book following a pilgrimage to her paternal grandparents’ home place in Arkansas near Charleston (Franklin County), a place she had visited often as a child.

The story told in the book is fictional but has some semi-autobiographical elements. The parents and grandparents depicted in the book are modeled, to varying degrees, after Giles’s actual family members; the descriptions of events and places, such as the annual Confederate reunion and the Rogers farm, are drawn from Giles’s recollectionsof childhood summer vacations spent with her Holt grandparents. This intersection of fiction and reality is evident when comparing the book with Giles’s autobiographical account of her early childhood, The Kinta Years: An Oklahoma Childhood.

The protagonist Katherine (Katie) Rogers is the author’s alter ego. As a middle-aged woman, she returns to Stanwick, Arkansas—a fictionalized version of Charleston—after a long absence. Much has changed, but some landmarks from the distant past remain, such as a beloved mulberry tree and a plum thicket protecting the gravesite of an unknown infant. She begins to reminisce about one particular summer four decades earlier, circa 1912, when she was an eight-year-old child, climbing the mulberry tree, playing in the plum thicket, and generally enjoying life unaware of its myriad ups and downs. The story moves at a leisurely pace—told mostly from the child’s sentimental perspective—until accelerating toward the end, concluding with jolting tragedies and unexpected events. In an act of self-defense, the new physician in town kills the Rogerses’ Native American farm hand. The farm hand had assaulted him, enraged that the white doctor had impregnated the family’s African-American housekeeper (who is also the farm hand’s lover). Katie’s Aunt Maggie, who is betrothed to a local banker, is murdered by her own mother, Grandmother Rogers, who, throughout the story, shows subtle signs of mental illness stemming from a delusional prudishness. The motivation for the crime was to protect her daughter from the indignities of carnality and childbirth.

The book is unusual among Giles’s works not only for its Arkansas setting, but also for its uninhibited discussion of human sexuality, issues surrounding race, and Grandmother Emily Rogers’s psychopathic preoccupation with anything that offended her notions of propriety.

Many of Giles’s books were distributed widely through the Doubleday Book of the Month Club. Because of its mature themes, The Plum Thicket was not one of them. Consequently, it was not a bestseller. It was profitable, nonetheless, earning for the author and publisher “a respectable amount of money” by Giles’s reckoning. The first printing of 6,000 copies sold out, and the book was reprinted in 1973 and 1996. In contrast, Giles estimated sales of its predecessor, The Kentuckians, circa 1970, at more than 340,000 copies.

The Plum Thicket received favorable reviews and ranks among Giles’s greatest literary achievements. Giles herself commented that “much of whatever wisdom I have acquired has been distilled into this book,” and that she “never regretted” writing it.

For additional information:
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.

———. The Plum Thicket. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

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 March 17, 2017).

Stuart, Dianne Watkins. Janice Holt Giles: A Writer’s Life. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

Greg A. Phelps
Lindsey Wilson College

Last Updated: 03/17/2017

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