Author Jean Herbert Winthers has prepared her whole life to be an author and now, at age 85, her novel “The Big Gumbo” is in print and for sale.
It’s not the first novel she’s written.
“Oh, no, I’ve prepared my whole life to write novels,” Winthers said at her home in Victor. “I knew I was always going to be a writer. I just wrote all the time — stories and poetry.”
She started writing in grade school and never stopped. She graduated with a degree in Journalism from the University of Montana in 1956, wrote professionally as a journalist, public relations writer, freelancer and as an editor.
Winthers went back to school in 1972 to get her master’s degree from the UM in creative writing. A shorter version of “The Big Gumbo” was her master’s thesis.
Gumbo is a type of soil filled with fine clay that covered the sheep-ranch in South Dakota where Winthers grew up. Her novel takes place on the big ranch next door.
“I started out this idea when I was in high school,” Winthers said. “I was so intrigued by how hard women worked. Growing up everyone worked. My sister and I were sheepherders by the time we were six and seven years old. We all had to work and my mother worked hardest of all on our ranch. My dad’s partner owned the big ranch. I was really intrigued by it.”
The novel is about newlyweds taking a train west who are convinced to try sheep-ranching on the Big Gumbo. It is about their life in the unforgiving landscape, marriage, love and isolation.
Winthers said she experienced isolation growing up, with distant neighbors and the nearest town five miles away. No telephone, no electricity, no plumbing but kerosene lights and coal for fuel.
Her parents moved to Missoula when she was 15 and she enjoyed the luxury of modern conveniences.
“I just appreciated them so much,” Winthers said. “Showers! I had never had a shower before. We had an outhouse and I still like heat in the bathroom.”
When she was off at college her parents moved back and took over the big ranch.
“It was so isolated,” Winthers said. “My mother and neighboring ladies would meet with their coffee cups at the mailboxes a couple of miles up the road. They would all talk there. The mail lady was the newspaper, which was the only news and connection.”
Winthers and her husband Jack, who had a career in wood products, lived in many places across the United States. She always had a job as a journalist or writer. They retired, moved to the Bitterroot Valley in 2000 and bought their home on the Bitterroot River near Victor. She pulled up her master’s thesis and began further research and refining.
The novel is loosely based on her dad.
“My dad was raised by his Norwegian grandparents in western North Dakota,” Winthers said. “His mother died in childbirth and my grandparents took the children. They didn’t like their daughter’s husband, he eloped with her, so they took the children and raised them.”
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At age 14, Winthers’ dad ran away and an aunt helped him find his dad.
“That was my favorite story about my dad,” she said. “He was always telling us stories about his feisty little grandmother who ruled with a rod of iron. She was the boss, the children would hide from her in the barn.”
The novel includes a lot of history of South Dakota. She has researched it and lived it as her family arrived for homesteading in 1891.
She said she tries to write a couple of hours every day.
“I do a lot of research and the timeline of South Dakota, the timeline of my characters, I just write but have to keep my timelines straight,” she said. “The internet is wonderful. When I first wrote my thesis I was down at the library night after night digging out original sources and taking notes. It is a real thrill to sit at my computer and Google the answers.”
She said writing a novel has always been number one on her bucket list but she’s been working for it all her life.
“It is my life dream, but I really worked for it,” Winthers said. “The journalism degree taught me to write well and fast, especially to collect my ideas and thoughts. I’m really doing what I want to do now.”
Being in introvert by nature she isn’t social but does belong to book clubs.
“We call ourselves ‘bookies’ there are eight or nine of us in the valley, mostly in Hamilton,” Winthers said. “The bookies are very supportive. I did belong to the Victor book club but had too many people, I like a smaller group. The word got out (about her novel) and people seem to like it.”
Winthers advice for aspiring writers is to read everything and write all the time.
“I’m an impulsive reader, I have to read every day or I’m lost,” she said. “Read everything, not just one genre. I read everything but romance, I don’t care for that. Reading teaches you to write. All these words get into your mind and somehow come out in a different form.”
She calls herself a procrastinator and always needs a deadline.
She is not finished writing.
She has also skied her entire life and has a ski novel in the works, she has completed part one of her memoir and is writing the next book, sequel, about what happened to the ranch of “The Big Gumbo.”
“I think if you want to write, you just have to write,” Winthers said. “I started writing poetry at age 6. My mother read to us ever since I can remember. I was always so interested in ‘who wrote that?’ ‘I want to be that person.’ I’d write stories and she was my critique. She made me realize I had to write my own stuff. My dad would tell us wonderful stories about his life and his adventures. It all kind of evolved into this.”
You can purchase “The Big Gumbo,” published by Bitterroot Press in Redmond, Washington, at Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Barnes and Noble and the Book Exchange in Missoula.