Excerpt from A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Strong West Wind

by Gail Caldwell

A Strong West Wind
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2006, 256 pages
    Jan 2007, 256 pages

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Not that Kerouac or his wanderlust forebears had anything on my ancestors. My maternal great-grandfather was a Baptist preacher who had lost an arm fighting in the Battle of Murfreesboro, though this sacrifice is said to have barely slowed him down—one hand, Grandpa Mitchell insisted, was all he needed to hold the Good Book before his congregation. Both sides of my family were Scots-Irish, with English on my father's side and Cherokee on my mother's, and we assumed from our mongrel lineage a sort of moxie, as though we had gotten as far west as we did by our refusal to stop moving. Like a lot of settlers who had migrated west in the mid-nineteenth century, Grandpa Mitchell had pulled up stakes in Tennessee and "gone to Texas"—an explanation, common in the Deep South at the time, that revealed not destination but freewheeling spirit. Gone to Texas was the sign you scrawled and planted outside your house when, like Huck Finn, you were lighting out for the territory, even if you didn't know where you were headed. The resounding theme was one of agency—of staring down your adversary, heading west, trying to outlast whatever trouble awaited you. My mother's father, a farmer with the exquisitely Southern name of Jerome Forest Groves, used to walk the rows of his crops all night long when an early freeze hit Breckenridge, Texas; he believed that his tread on the hard ground would raise the temperature a few degrees. I don't know that he ever saved so much as a head of lettuce. But the notion that he thought he had, or could—well, that was the same endurance that put him on the road during the flu epidemic of 1918, when my mother remembered his walking ten miles into town to get medicine for his children. That was the kind of faith I'd heard about in churches, generally reserved for moving mountains. That was what got you to town, or to Texas, or just got you through the night.

My father's father, James Penick Caldwell, known as Pink, made it as far west as Quanah, Texas, on the southeastern edge of the Panhandle, before love took him home to Reilly Springs. Quanah had grown up around the railroad, and Pink went there as a young man in 1890 to find work. "There was a man shot here in town, but not hurt bad," he wrote to the girl he had left behind. "This is a lively little place." Still, Quanah's high life was no match for Della McElroy, who would become my grandmother.  A friend tried to convince Pink to press on to Oregon to work the railroads, part of the great westward wave of young men who would build the Northwest. He told Della he was heading home to her instead. "If I was to roam this wide world over," he wrote, "I would not forget my black eyed Darling."

Della wanted to marry Pink, but she was only seventeen, and her father, Dr. J. E. McElroy, thought she was too young. She was physically slight, and because she was stubborn and he knew better than to cross her outright, Dr. McElroy told his daughter she could have his blessing when she weighed a hundred pounds— calculating, as a father and a physician, that she had already reached full size. Della saw the dare for what it was, and she got on her horse and rode it through the creek until her long skirts were drenched to her waist. Then she went home and climbed on the scales, and Dr. McElroy had to keep his word.

I came of age under the rubric of this story, and Della's headstrong guile continues to fill me with gladness: Who was this hundred-pound mass of insubordination who stood up to her father, married Pink, and gave birth to six sons and four daughters? She died in 1936, when she was fifty-nine; my father had left college to go back to the farm and care for her in her last months. I knew her only through the legends she left and through the farm at Reilly Springs, a rambling old white house with no indoor plumbing, each of its rooms bearing whispers of the past. There was the front bedroom where as a boy my father had found a copperhead coiled beneath his pillow, instilling his lifelong fear of snakes. There was the long farm table, occupied for hours each day, where Della had fed her hungry brood in shifts; the ones who showed up late generally got the least to eat. And there was the outhouse—humble, enduring edifice—where a bullying cousin once tried to spy on me and my sister, until my dad got wise to the boy and sent him on a mysterious snipe hunt. Mr. Pink, too, had died before my childhood, just after my father had come home from overseas. But I can still and forever see Della riding through that stream, defying and outwitting her father. It was a splendid lesson for a girl in rough-hewn Texas to possess— my very own Pride and Prejudice—and a story my father, in the years that followed, may have regretted passing on with such unabashed pride.

Excerpted from A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell Copyright © 2006 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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