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Historical Fiction Review    

Will's War
by Janice Woods Windle
Longstreet Press, 2002
ISBN: 1-56352-639-5

Janice Woods Windle has once again dug into her family history to create a griping adventure based more on fact than fiction.  The author of Texas Women and Hill Country, brings the story of her grandfather Will Bergfeld who was charged with treason by the United States in 1917.  Most of Will’s War follows the events leading up to and during this trial that proved to be more about his German heritage and union activities. 

Windle could not have known when she started her work on Will’s War, the profound effect it would have for readers after September 11, 2001.  The suspicion and harassment of Muslims and Arab-Americans following the recent terrorists attacks can be compared to that of German-Americans during World War I.  Windle creates a vivid scene of an elderly German farmer left to die on a Texas road after being whipped, then tarred and feathered. Another is the burning of Seguin, Texas, which was a rich settlement of German-Americans. 

Part of the deep-rooted hate seems to come from the Civil War era, when immigrating Germans were busy settling in the new country and had no personal interest in the war.  The Texas Confederates returned defeated and to poverty, while the German-Americans had been building a wealthy and a cultured society.  The German-Americans called the Confederates “Raggedies”. 

Another part of the emotions on edge could have been those with family fighting in Europe thinking they were doing their part, by attacking those of German heritage here.  In 1917 central Texas, there were still German schools and German spoken in the home.  Those who did not understand the language, suspected those who did. 

The fear was nationwide, in fact, it was a train hidden in darkness carrying Secret Service Agents and Texas Rangers that broke into homes to arrest fifty-two men.  In their hand was a secret government list entitled “Subjects of the Teutonic Order,” which was made up of men of German heritage that the government felt were possible threats to the country. 

Will Bregfeld was a rural mailman and a local union leader for the Farmers’ and Laborers’ Protective Association.  He was a natural speaker and drew people to him.  Bregfeld cared about the underdog and often fought for their cause without fear of danger.  While working as a deputy sheriff at a Colorado coal mine, Bregfeld meets Mother Jones and almost loses his life trying to talk the camp boss into decent conditions for the workers and families. 

Will’s War is told through three strong women who work to free Will.  Bette Moss King, Will’s mother-in-law who was there at his birth and watched the spirited boy grow-up.  Virginia King Bergfeld, Will’s wife who supported his beliefs.  And finally, Louise Bergfeld Tewes, who was Will’s sister and best friend – and who would make the greatest sacrifice to prove his innocence. 

Janice Windle used court transcripts, family journals, etc. to bring this story of American history to life.  It is a great trial novel, but more than that it is a story of the American Dream and the spirit to reach it.


Joyce Dixon
Southern Scribe Reviews

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