Following what it takes to survive

by Thomas Mullen
Posted 9/27/23


A rabbit got into the well and died, putrefying what the family needed to stay alive.

“They put my grandmother, at age six, down in the well.”

That’s how …

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Following what it takes to survive



A rabbit got into the well and died, putrefying what the family needed to stay alive.

“They put my grandmother, at age six, down in the well.”

That’s how Teresa Janssen begins her first book, based largely on her grandmother’s story of survival in the Southwest at the turn of the last century.

The historical novel has been percolating in the Jefferson County teacher’s mind for more than a decade. After an unsuccessful search for an agent decades ago, she had put it on the shelf and turned her focus on her career, teaching French and English at Port Townsend High School and history at Chimacum.

“I always wanted to write - I had literally put it away, had four children, they’re all grown, and started writing short pieces which really did improve my writing,” she said.

And then ironically, a pandemic came, not entirely unlike the one her grandmother had survived a century prior.

“She was alone when the pandemic hit. She had no family and she managed to survive. Like so many people, I didn’t know if I was going to survive and so I took the book out and looked for a publisher,” Janssen told The Leader, adding, “this one was a perfect fit.”

“The Ways of Water” tells the story of Josie Belle Gore, the daughter of a Louisiana train engineer and Texas seamstress.

Josie moved with her itinerant family from one tank town to the next, isolated places where a water tank, alongside the railroad tracks, marked a filling post for the steam hogs that transported people and goods through the deserts of the boom-and-bust American West and revolutionary Mexico.

“She lived during the first two decades of the 20th century. So much happened during that era, so much change and she lived through it all. It was the traumatic events in her life that inspired me to write this and I was inspired by her courage, her tenacity and really taken with her survival story.”

Josie’s father ran the big hogs until his drinking got him blackballed and he was forced to work the small-gauge tracks serving the mines of Mexico.

“He was running a train in Chihuahua, Mexico until Pancho Villa started attacking the trains.”

Janssen interviewed her grandmother many times for the story but when Josie passed away she realized there were holes to fill.

“There were many times when I didn’t ask all the right questions and in order to develop a cohesive narrative and to get into her voice, I needed to write fiction. You have to imagine the conversations she had,” Janssen explained.

And so Janssen traveled extensively to research the geography of the story.

“It really started when I took a trip on the Jornada del Muerto which is part of El Camino Real, the place where it was too difficult to bring horse carts along the Rio Grande, but it was a very dangerous passage. They lived in a town called Cutter. It’s a ghost town now, almost nothing.

“After they built the Elephant Butte Dam the towns in that area died so I’m writing about a place that no longer exists but that’s only the beginning of story,” Janssen said.

When Josés mother died José was 14.

“She then gets separated from her family. She was left alone with her younger sibling and there came a point when, in order to save herself, she had to abandon her family. That was one of the most excruciating decisions of her life. This is a coming-of-age story about trying to survive as a young woman on her own in the Southwest.

“She experienced World War One and the pandemic and I had done all that research before our pandemic and wasn’t as surprised as some.”

The book is set to be released next month and Janssen is getting ready for a number of events coinciding with its launch.

“I will be reading and signing here in Washington and later in March, I’ll be in the Southwest going through New Mexico and Arizona.”

“The Ways of Water,” a novel by Teresa H. Janssen published by She Writes Press may be pre-ordered now.