Living history: Novel taps author’s family history to tell a story of Southwest life a century ago

Albuquerque author Sue Houser

Sue Houser’s new book for middle-graders is an absorbing historical novel containing characters and events based on Houser’s family remembrances.

The coming-of-age book is titled “Wilmettie,” which is the first name of the brave, warm-hearted 12-year-old protagonist, the only girl, and the oldest child, of four siblings.

The story begins in the west-central Texas town of Luling where Wilmettie’s family, including her maternal grandmother, raises cotton.

The drama begins when Wilmettie’s stepfather decides to relocate the family to the New Mexico Territory where he plans to claim a homestead.

The announcement deeply hurts Wilmettie’s feelings because she’s so attached to her grandmother, who is staying behind. There are moments throughout the story that Wilmettie feels so homesick that she’s determined to return to Texas to be with her beloved grandmother.

The novel is set in 1905, seven years before the territory achieved statehood. Most of the action occurs during the family’s westward journey by covered wagon. The trip is studded with sandstorms, heavy rains and close calls: Pete, one of their two horses, is spooked and runs off; Wilmettie saves baby brother Adney Jason from drowning in a treacherous Pecos River crossing; and the mother, Fern, suffers a bad fever.

The author crafts scenes with the right doses of tension and descriptions of hardship that hold the interest of young readers.

One particular scene is sure to give readers a scare. It involves a rattlesnake. Wilmettie is minding her baby brother when an ominous buzzing startles her. Next, we see Wilmettie jerking “her head around. A snake was now coiled next to the wagon wheel – rattling, ready to strike.”

She shouts that no one should move. Ignoring it, brother Willard picks up a rock and throws it at the snake, killing it.

Willard is awarded the rattles for his good aim. Stepfather Orville skins and smokes the snake meat for dinner over a fire of burning dried cow chips. However, a briefly disappointed Wilmettie gets no credit for having quickly warned the family about the snake.

Before reaching their destination, the family rests awhile in the territory’s booming town of Willard. There Wilmettie has a few cross-cultural experiences. She meets Ana, a young Hispanic girl whose family has a sheep ranch. Wilmettie learns about tortillas and home remedies from Ana and her mom. Meanwhile, she gets Ana’s brother Juan released from jail. Juan may be a petty thief but Wilmettie knows Juan didn’t rob and assault a local bank official.

Houser, the author, said the book is largely based on stories about her own maternal grandmother’s childhood that she related to Houser’s mother and aunt. “They talked about how traumatic the move was for her. … For the most part the book is her story. I fictionalized it. It needed more embellishments,” said Houser.

An Albuquerque resident, Houser grew up on a farm between Estancia and Mountainair, not far from where Wilmettie’s – and Houser’s own – families homesteaded.

After retiring as a social worker and a therapist, Houser took an interest in writing books for young readers. She’s received help from SouthWest Writers, the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators, and Green River Writers.

Johnna Scalia’s black-and-white illustrations and the earth tones of the cover of “Wilmettie” heighten the austerity of turn-of-the-century life in the Southwest that Houser’s words convey.

Scalia, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, illustrated the novel using the painting and drawing app Adobe Fresco.

There’s a four-page glossary of many period words and phrases such as blue john milk, camp meeting and sodbuster. After the glossary are two pages of basic Spanish vocabulary (e.g. gracias, mañana, and Vaya con Dios) and English translations.


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