‘Down Along the Piney’ is award-winning story collection set in Ozarks — by Harry Levins Special to the Post-Dispatch — Dec 7, 2018

Writer John Mort of Springfield, Mo., has a special place in his heart for the Ozarks. In 1990, he gave readers a short story collection titled “The Walnut King,” with half the stories set in the Ozarks. In 2011, he produced a novel titled “Goat Boy of the Ozarks.”

And now, he has written another short-story collection, “Down Along the Piney,” which won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction from the University of Notre Dame. The title is a reference to the Big Piney River, which flows northward through south-central Missouri before it empties into the Gasconade. This time, the Ozarks account for eight of the stories — with Ozarkian values like sweaty persistence and weary resignation coursing through each.

Mort’s characters tend toward unhappiness. That tendency breathes sharp reality into Mort’s prose. Take a man named Abraham, resident of a worn-out Ozarks community:

“An outdoorsman, he spent many days away from Red Buck, camping along the Piney River, and in Idaho, he’d tried to find the same wilderness Lewis and Clark had. I think that many times his loneliness nearly drove him insane.

“He’d found no solace touring his origins in Iowa. The farmhouse where he grew up had been gutted and abandoned. He did not recognize the town where he had gone to school, and the school itself was gone. His relatives were dead except for cousins and their children, and they did not know his name. The beautiful girl he almost married before the war had made a bad marriage, divorced, and fled to California.”

Nor do Mort’s stories teem with quirky, O. Henry-style surprises. Much of his prose deals with the drudgery of everyday details, polished by Mort into interesting, sometimes fascinating reading. A sample, dealing with a short-order cook in Florida:

“Up at four and walk to the diner, turn on the lights and air conditioner, brew coffee, tune the radio to classical station from Gainesville, bring in the deliveries of bananas and orange juice and ground beef, stir some eggs for scrambling and omelettes, bring down the ancient waffle iron, turn on the grill. Fix himself bacon and eggs and grapefruit, sit with strong, sugared coffee, read the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald, carefully fold them and put them on the counter along with the Toronto Daily Mail and the New York Times. Plug in his laptop and send a message to his son: Doing fine, sending you some money for your grades. The air force put up a satellite yesterday, what a big firecracker! Say hello to your mother.

“Switch the radio to country and western from Orlando.

“Open the door.

“Ted the Bum came first, promptly at six, but then he’d been up all night and breakfast was his reward to himself. That he’d reached yet another sunrise was reason enough to celebrate, but he was sober in the mornings, clear-eyed for a few hours.”

Since the decline and fall of magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, the audience for short stories seems to have dwindled to high school and college classrooms. The rest of us can pick up a copy of “Down Along the Piney” to realize what we’re missing.

Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.

https://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/books-and-literature/reviews/down-along-the-piney-is-award-winning-story-collection-set/article_c3fe2de0-f522-5547-b630-9ef40bf59cdf.html

Thomas A. Peters review of DOWN ALONG THE PINEY, in Ozarks Watch, Fall/Winter, 2018

Both the Ozarks and the Piney River are at once real and metaphorical places. Two real rivers, the Big Piney and the Little Piney, both flow northward (yes, northward) in a parallel fashion in the central Ozarks region, eventually emptying into the Gasconade River. At unexpected moments throughout the stories in John Mort’s prize-winning new book, the metaphorical Piney River glimmers from the pages, often in startling ways. In one story, the Piney flows into a “great inland sea.” That’s a stretcher, because neither Piney has been dammed. Although the book’s subtitle declares that these are “Ozarks Stories,” many of them are not actually set in the real Ozarks, for the most part. But most have ties to the metaphorical Ozarks, perhaps best perceived as a state of mind.

Mort’s new collection of thirteen short stories is published by the University of Notre Dame Press. Nine of the thirteen stories have appeared previously in literary journals and anthologies, and several of them, including “The Hog Whisper” (see below), which won a 2013 Spur Award, have been honored on their own. The book as a whole is winner of the 2018 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, which is sponsored by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English at Notre Dame. If, like me, you are wondering who Richard Sullivan was, here’s the answer from the English Department’s website:

Richard T. Sullivan graduated from Notre Dame in 1930 and joined the University’s faculty as a writing instructor in 1936. In addition to writing numerous book reviews for the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, he published several short story collections and novels, including The World of Idella May, The Three Kings, Summer After Summer, The Dark Continent, and First Citizen. A popular undergraduate teacher, he is remembered for his description of writing as ‘hard work requiring patience and idiotic perseverance.’ He died in 1981.

What animates most of these stories are the characters looking for something from life that they cannot quite articulate and have not yet found or attained. Not money, mind you. Love would be a four-letter word describing what many of these characters seek. Strained and broken relationships abound. In advance praise for this collection, author Shann Ray describes Mort’s stories as “exquisite and lush in the desert of America’s failed attempts at intimacy.” Many of Mort’s characters long to escape and make fresh starts, which is a recurring theme in American literature, from Huckleberry Finn to the Little House books. For example, in “Mission to Mars,” the main character Brad shouts as he witnesses the launch of a Mars mission, “Oh lift me, lift me up….Take me up!”

Many of these stories are gritty, but this collection is not part of the “Ozarks noir” genre currently in vogue. Very little meth, moonshine, or monkeyshines occur in these stories. All of the characters, male and female, are interesting and engaging. In “The Hog Whisperer,” Carrie Kreider sympathizes with hogs, who are often understood as demonic pariahs. Carrie finds fulfillment of sorts in figuring out a method to make hog shit from CAFOs smell sweet.

The thirteenth story in this collection, “The Hidden Kingdom,” is my favorite. It is whimsical and fanciful, but it also resolves most of the disappointment, anguish, and parcels of vain strivings tied up in the previous dozen stories. Eddie is frustrated, bored, and hungover with a dead-end job (“Oh, the curse of a world in which everything is known! Where there’s only sex and bad food, jobs you sleep through, and people you wear out in four months. Surely, there’s more, but I can’t see it!”), but he achieves a hillbilly nirvana by using his lottery winnings, divided into small bundles secured with butcher paper, to escape from the south side of Valdosta, Georgia, and a string of four-months-max girlfriends, as well as a phantasmagoric string of neon retail hell, culminating with a night spent in a motel near Graceland in Memphis coupled with an early-morning Elvis sighting in a Piggly Wiggly, to the Ozarks. There Eddie finds peace, meaning, and fulfillment in his life, meets a schoolteacher, and their relationship continues strong well past the four-month mark.

Highly recommended

A Country Year: Living the Questions (1984), by Sue Hubbell Country Year: A Journal of the Seasons at Possum Trot Farm (1957), by Leonard Hall

After some thirty years of marriage, Hubbell’s husband left Hubbell and their bee-keeping operation in southern Missouri. She casts no blame but you feel her loneliness, her buried grief, on every page, even though her short chapters are often levied with bemusement over, for instance, the war between a blacksnake and chickenhouse mice.

Hubbell makes a perilous living with her 200 hives, kept not only on her farm but on neighboring farms. She travels about in her cantankerous pickup truck, making friends with the local people even though she’s plainly an Easterner and a literary sort in the bargain. On the farm, she observes not only bees but birds, deer, insects, and snakes. She shrugs off the common Ozarks fear of the brown recluse spider: she’s bitten herself and claims the bite to be no more significant than that of a tick or chigger.  Similarly, she downplays the deadliness of copperheads and rattlers, though she’s wary of water moccasins.

Note that Hubbell wrote her book before the widespread appearance of the varroa mite, colony collapse disorder—or cell phones.

Hubbell becomes a sort of Thoreau in her self-reliance: shingling her house, repairing her pickup, and cutting firewood with her chainsaw. This is probably one explanation of the memoir’s popularity (particularly with women readers): without making pronouncements about relations between the sexes, Hubbell stakes out a quiet, feminist claim.

Not all of A Country Year is about nature. Hubbell’s farm borders a small river, and on the opposite shore, the VFW operates a campsite. Hubbell is friendly with the vets and sometimes hosts her own gatherings at their camp. One night, some old men knock on her door, wanting to use her phone. It seems a young Vietnam vet has killed himself and the old men are deeply shaken. Hubbell comforts them, and the scene gives the memoir some much-needed, human texture. We all share this sadness, Hubbell seems to say.

In her explorations of the natural world, Hubbell is making a spiritual search, though it has nothing to do with her evangelical neighbors. Something does well up in her quest, not as philosophical as Thoreau or as ecological as Wendell Berry, but beautiful in its way. Readers celebrate the memoir’s lyricism and Hubbell’s seemingly effortless ability to describe the natural world, harking back, indeed, to Thoreau—and maybe John Burroughs, who also wrote about bees. Rereading Hubbell, however, what comes through the strongest is a sweet sorrow.

Sue Hubbell’s memoir may fall something short of a “beloved classic,” but it was a bestseller in the 1980s, is still in print, and launched a fine writing career. Hubbell died on October 18, 2018, at age 83.

THE FIRST THING one might say about Leonard Hall’s Country Year is that it’s practical. His descriptions of natural processes, even more of farm life, are every bit as insightful as Hubbell’s, but he’s all about the economics of running a model farm. Hall practices good animal husbandry, works in harmony with the seasons, treats the soil respectfully, and tries to turn a profit.

His book, expanded from columns that originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is laid out by the month, which is a neat, simple scheme. It allows Hall to range widely from the solitude of winter to the hopefulness of spring to the frantic work of summer to harvest in the fall. It’s seasons, rather than months, that emerge from A Country Year.

Hall is philosophical, but more in the vein of a conservationist than an environmentalist. The difference is sometimes subtle, but Hall is a hunter and fisherman as well as a farmer; he simply believes that such activities must be done responsibly. He doesn’t understand humankind to be an interloper whose very presence harms nature; rather, he’s a manager. In this spirit, Hall can wax poetic:

We roll across our fields on the seat of the tractor with our heads enveloped in exhaust fumes. No longer do we walk in the furrow with the sun on our backs, conscious of each  plant the plow turns under, of the rich life that exists in good soil, of the blackbird following along behind us to pick up his morning meal. If we don’t watch out, we are apt to find ourselves believing that it is the noise of our passage which makes the corn grow; and this is a conceit in which farming loses it real meaning.

For people of my generation, Hall’s book isn’t dated; rather, it’s nostalgic in how it portrays veterinarians,  auctions, neighbors, canning produce, butchering—the latest, scientific techniques. It tells you that the stalwarts you grew up admiring were hard workers with good intentions, even though they set in motion the likes of Monsanto and Tyson and Smithfield Foods. Hall would have been horrified by modern farming, but I know there are Halls out there, still, doing the best they can to manage their land—and animals—with respect for the natural world. It’s just that the task has grown much more difficult.

https://www.amazon.com/Country-Year-Living-Questions/dp/0395967015/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1541796643&sr=1-1&keywords=a+country+year+sue+hubbell

https://www.amazon.com/Country-year-journal-seasons-Possum/dp/B0007DZTJW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1541847333&sr=8-1&keywords=leonard+hall+a+country+year

The Weight of Blood (2014), by Laura McHugh

McHugh begins her (first) novel with the discovery of  the mutilated body of Cheri Stoddard, a sweet, somewhat retarded girl and friend of one of the narrators, Lucy Dane. But Cheri’s story, it turns out, is less important than Lucy’s attempt to unravel the mystery of her mother’s, Lila’s, death shortly after Lucy’s birth. That is, Cheri’s death is part of a larger mystery.

As an Ozarks book, The Weight of Blood is rather good with flora and fauna and what might be called historical lore. Did you know, for instance, that a cat will suckle a newborn ’possum, or that hogs go crazy for persimmons? On the other hand, McHugh’s characterizations of men are kind of stereotypical: the good ones are passive and go along with what women want, while the men who are bad, and they are very bad, are sexually violent and depraved.

Apparently, though they might claim otherwise, people eat this stuff up.

Chief  among the latter sort of man is Lucy’s Uncle Crete, a clever-but-brutal businessman with many an ugly rumor trailing him, including that he runs a backwoods white slavery—one might as well say, white trash—operation between the little town of Henbane and Springfield. McHugh mostly just hints darkly about this operation, but her sex scenes, including a rape, are graphic and well done. In fact, though McHugh’s men don’t ring altogether true, the way in which her women relate to them is intimate and affecting.

As for the women, McHugh pulls off the rather unusual feat of narrating her story from the points of view of both Lila and Lucy, mother and daughter, twenty years apart, and they are convincingly different. Lucy has grown up in a stable environment, raised by her single dad, Carl—Clete’s brother. She’s a typical teenager in some ways, with boys on the brain and college in her future, and she has a nice young man, Daniel, to accompany her in her sleuthing.

Lila, on the other hand, is a portrait in desperation. She’s an orphan from Iowa with no resources, and signs up for a kind of indenture in southern Missouri. She’s strikingly beautiful and that’s her appeal for Crete, who wants her for himself at first and then tries to turn her into a prostitute. Luckily for her, Carl wants to marry her, which will lend respectability to Lucy’s birth. But Lila will die anyhow in a dramatic confrontation, brilliantly staged in an old moonshiner’s cave. Some allusions here, intentional or not, to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Lucy, who reminds one just a little of a Nancy Drew caught up a world full of debauchery, solves her mystery, and grows up some, too, as she unravels all the secrets about her mother, and learns why they were secret. This is not my kind of story, because I don’t like how McHugh portrays men and don’t often read mysteries, but what do I know?  On amazon, The Weight of Blood boasts—count them—518 reader reviews. That’s extraordinary.

 

 

Down Along the Piney, reviewed by Timothy J. Bazzett (amazon)

Customer Review

5.0 out of 5 starsMort at the top of his game. Immediately relevant. Loved every one of these stories!

By Timothy J. Bazzett on October 11, 2018

Format: Paperback

First things first: every one of these stories is first class fiction, and I loved ’em all. It is such a pity that short story collections are such a hard sell in the book industry, because these stories are WORTH READING and WORTH YOUR TIME!

I first discovered John Mort’s work about five years ago when I picked up a used copy of his first novel, SOLDIER IN PARADISE (SMU Press, 1999). Although I was late in finding it, I was blown away by the book. Since then I’ve read a couple more Mort books (GOAT BOY OF THE OZARKS and THE ILLEGAL), both very good. And now I’ve read the latest, DOWN ALONG THE PINEY: OZARKS STORIES (his fourth short story collection), and, as I’ve already indicated, every story in it is simply superb, and I was hooked from the first page. “Pitchblende” gives us “the Colonel,” a crazed Korean War veteran, bulldozing a Missouri mountain top in a futile search for uranium while his family disintegrates around him. The story’s narrator is his son, Michael, looking back years later, at memories of shooting rats at the local landfill, his mother going back to school and gradually drifting away, and his own wonder and puzzlement at having survived his tour in Vietnam, where several of his high school classmates died –

“I was a warrant officer. I was a pilot, and twice I was shot down. Who knows why, but the bullets flew all around me, and i was never touched.”

And then there is “The Hog Whisperer,” in which Mort gives us Carrie Kreider, an autistic “backward, and unusually large, country girl,” who “was gifted, it turned out,” and won a full scholarship to Kansas State, where her master’s thesis was “on how containment hog operations could be more humane.” A huge Texas farm conglomerate hires her to research how to “make hog s**t smell sweet.” There’s more, of course, as Carrie tries to negotiate the pitfalls of men’s cruelty and the mysteries of falling in love. It’s simply a lovely little story in which Mort might have been channeling the inner life of Temple Grandin.

“Red Rock Valley” makes a sharp turn into the inner life of a lonely homosexual, his partner long gone, succumbed to AIDS, as he returns home, where his father is dying. Robert ‘Killer’ Coogan is the emotionally damaged veteran in “Behind Enemy Lines,” living on a river island in an old school bus with a wolf as his only companion. Bad teeth force him out of his isolation to a VA hospital, where he discovers, as one of his companions calls it, “Money for nothing … Good as it gets.”

“The Book Club” explores the lives of a sect of women outcasts, ex-cons, unfit mothers and misfits, with murmurs of Shirley Jackson’s classic story, “The Lottery.” And “Mariposa” gives us an intimate look into the tough times of a migrant worker family, forced to return to Mexico, as seen through the eyes of a teen daughter, U.S. born, who cannot adjust.

But of the thirteen stories presented here, the centerpiece – and the longest, at fifty pages – is unquestionably “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him,” a look inside a Jim Jones-like, utopian, wilderness Ozarks community of assorted evangelicals, militant survivalists, crazies and hangers-on founded by a retired army sergeant known only as “Top.” The toxic mix of guns, religion and fanatacism come to a boil and erupt in murder and the stalking of a political candidate with a shady, criminal past. This is a story that has immediate relevance in our country’s current atmosphere of hate and division. Mort has peopled it with very believable and human characters, especially young Birdy Blevins, a former drug addict ‘rescued’ by Top, who becomes, first, an emaciated Christ-figure in a Passion Play tableau put on for tourists in the New Jerusalem settlement, and, finally, the cop-killing “Jesus Boy,” the object of an interstate man-hunt.

John Mort is at the top of his game with these latest stories. I’ll say it again. I loved every one of them. My very highest recommendation.

– Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

https://www.amazon.com/review/R202BXBTAGVGQE/ref=pe_1098610_137716200_cm_rv_eml_rv0_rv

The Maid’s Version (2013), by Daniel Woodrell

Reviewers often compare Daniel Woodrell to William Faulkner (easy to see), Flannery O’Connor (not really; she was a devout Catholic and much funnier), and Cormac McCarthy (again, because of the Faulknerian prose, the violence, the testosterone). One might also add Jim Harrison (Harrison was better with plots), Thomas McGuane (more absurd), and here’s an odd one: Erskine Caldwell. Caldwell had none of Woodrell’s dark vision, his style was less elegant, but Woodrell shares Caldwell’s acquaintance with Southern poverty and his proletarian sensibilities.

The other factor complicating how to regard Woodrell is the movies: Ride with the Devil (from Woe to Live On) and particularly, the movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone. The movies are Woodrell’s work, too, if only indirectly.

Still, with all of that, one shouldn’t lose sight of the writer himself. He’s not an imitator. For one thing, he writes fiction about the Ozarks, and not many good writers have. I was partly raised in a town not far from West Table (apparently, West Plains, Woodrell’sYoknapatawpha) and he gets every detail right without obsessing over those details.

Woodrell draws from an actual event, a dance hall explosion in West Plains in 1928. Thirty-nine people died, many were injured, and the cause was never quite pinned down. (There’s also a non-fiction account from 2010 by Lin Waterhouse, The West Plains Dance Hall Explosion (https://www.amazon.com/West-Plains-Dance-Explosion-Disaster/dp/1609491165/ref=sr_tc_2_1?ie =UTF8&qid=1533097990&sr=1-2-ent)

Woodrell opens with the maid of the title, an old woman named Alma Dunahew, who’s hosting her grandson, Alek, for the summer. The short novel, almost a novella, is Alma’s account to Alek of the family’s tough history. Alma came from an abusive home. She’s all but illiterate, and eked out a bitter living working for West Table’s more prosperous families. She hardly had food for her own children. But the reader suspects she knows the cause of the explosion, and that’s all Woodrell needs for suspense and to drive to the heart of this old mystery.

After Alma sets things up, Woodrell tells his story with short chapters, featuring portraits of local hussies, St. Louis gangsters, bankers, drunks, and snobs, all of whom may be candidates for the ultimate ruin. These quick, seemingly casual characterizations are the best part of the book. In particular, there’s the fire-and-brimstone preacher, a character who shows up often in Southern fiction, but Woodrell dusts him off and makes him real again: “Preacher Willard accepted the Ten Commandments as a halfhearted start but kept adding amendments until the number of sins he couldn’t countenance was beyond memorization.”

Gradually, two characters emerge as more important than the others: Alma’s younger sister, Ruby, much more comely, much more flirtatious than Alma; and Arthur Glencross, a self-made man, appealing but flawed, who heads the local bank and whose sound judgment saved it from disaster. He’s an upright guy but can’t resist Ruby, and she, a woman who’s made a career out of mesmerizing men, can’t resist him, either. Their affair edges right up to lurid—and stops.

That’s all there is to the plot except for the brilliant end. Woodrell tells a brooding, sorrowful story, in the process offering up an incisive portrait of the Ozarks that used to be—not corny, not even quaint, but universal.

Lightning Bug  (1970), by Donald Harington 

Lightning Bug is the first of the thirteen Stay More (Arkansas) novels. Harington, from Little Rock, used Drakes Creek, deep in the hills east of Fayetteville, as his model. He spent his summers there as a child and fell in love with the place, his Yoknapatawpha County.

Boil it down to its essential elements, Lightning Bug is an outré love story told with gentle whimsy, using, in part, the point of a view of a precocious boy-child named Dawny. Dawny has many adventures leading to a time when he’s lost in the woods, maybe forever. Even though he’s only five, he lusts after the lightning bug, Latha Bourne, an evanescent, randy creature who is Stay More’s storekeeper and postmaster.

Lightning Bug is Latha’s novel, and Harington liked her so much he brought her back in several of the Stay More novels. In other words, her story is incomplete here, and Lightning Bug never really ends.

Latha has a lost love, Every Dill, who long ago rescued Latha from the insane asylum (she wasn’t mad; vengeful relatives committed her over their disapproval of her wild sex life, and because they wanted to keep her daughter). Harington relates Every’s rescue like a fast-paced thriller. In terms of technique, there doesn’t seem to be anything Harington can’t do, or won’t.

Every Dill holds Latha captive, rapes her, and then disappears. He returns many years later as a repentant, rueful evangelist, and the strange, tragicomic love affair resumes. We also learn quite a bit more about Every and Latha’s daughter, Sonora, and myriad minor characters.

That’s the story, more or less. Really, because Harington doesn’t like endings (the novel ends where it began, with a screen door squawking shut) and wants the reader to be completely immersed in the experience he offers, the thirteen novels could be said to be one long, episodic novel without beginning or end.

This first one is joyous–a warm summer evening in a lost time. It’s bawdy, not so far from Chaucer. It’s also learned. The characters are hillbillies, yet universal. Here’s some dialogue from a scene in which a candy salesman comes calling on Latha one hot day.

She says: “I will take a box of Baby Ruths, a box of Butterfingers, a box of Powerhouses, and a box of those round pink-goo peanut blobs, whatever you call them.”

“I couldn’t interest you this mornin in some Tootsie Rolls or some Hershey Bars?”           

“In this weather?”

“You could cool em with your sody pop there.”/;

“I’ll do that when you invent a waterproof wrapper.”

“Well, how about some orange slices? They’ll keep in any weather.”

“They’ll keep forever, too, because nobody around here eats them.”

“All right. How bout me’n you seein the pitcher show over to Jasper tonight? That’s my own car out there.”

“I thank you. But I’m already set up for tonight.”

“I bet he don’t have his own car.”

“No, but he’s got something a durn sight prettier than any car.”

 Harington is funny, sometimes with slapstick and sometimes simply because he nails a scene perfectly, inspirng your own memories of childhood or small towns or how men flirt. (Note the spot-on dialect, which Harington claimed he summoned from his childhood; at age twelve, he lost 90 percent of his hearing to meningitis.)

Lightning Bug reaches its conclusion, sort of, when Jesus comes down from the mountain to speak to Latha in her peach orchard. She’s wondering why Avery won’t make love to her before they are married.

“You don’t approve of fornication?” she asks.

Jesus says: “Oh, that word! What I was talking about . . . was unchastity and immorality without love or even affection. Marriage is in the heart anyway. I could name you several billion married couples who are committing fornication with each other as far as I’m concerned . . . let’s say I’ve spoken out against betrayal. I’m on record as opposed to uncleanness and dissipation, and I’ve taken a rather strong stand against cuckoldry, because in a triangle somebody’s liable to get hurt. But I thought I’ve made it pretty clear that my supreme commandment is ‘You better love your neighbor the same way you love yourself.’ And that means all neighbors, male and female.”

Pantheism. Free love. (Harington was a creature of the 1960s, after all.) Harington’s work exists on a higher and lower plane all at once, and it’s never reached a wide audience. Jesus’ speech is radical in a country that always, always returns to its puritanical origins. Scholars lament that Harington, who died in 2009, never found the wide readership of Twain or Vonnegut, or the classic literary status of Nabokov or Garcia-Marquez. Speaking as a fiction writer, I find his talent and knowledge to be overwhelmingly instructive, but that’s the problem. He’s a writer’s writer.

Old Home Town (1935), by Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was more famous than her mother until after World War II. She wrote biographies of Herbert Hoover and Jack London and quite a lot of fiction, as well as a number of nonfiction pieces for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. She was an unscrupulous writer, essentially a tabloid journalist who had no problem inventing details that seemed to fit with her kernels of truth, and which, in her shrewd opinion, would bring about more sales.

She was seen as a dubious character in Mansfield, Missouri, her mother’s home and sometimes Lane’s, too. In the long view of history, it was Lane’s right-wing politics that mattered, both in how she critiqued the New Deal and in how her shrill pronouncements marred her writing, but in Mansfield she was seen as an immoral, troublesome, haughty woman, a divorced, audacious feminist with no patience for the stubborn mores of small towns.

Old Home Town is a fictional portrait of Mansfield delivered as nine stories, all from the point of view of Ernestine, a small girl who turns into a teenager as the stories unfold. Many of the stories would have been better served with a third person point of view; first person forces Lane to stick Ernestine in all kinds of unlikely circumstances in order to portray crucial scenes.

In her introduction, Lane points out that she is portraying small town life around 1900, not 1935. A woman can hardly go out in public other than to market, and a buggy ride or even an unchaperoned walk with a single man will ruin a girl’s reputation. A kiss is as scandalous as intercourse—which, of course, isn’t mentionable.

Nothing concerns these young women other than clothes, and the clothes, well-described, were awfully complicated in 1900. The clothes are necessary to land a husband, and if you haven’t managed this by your early twenties, you’re an old maid. It’s hard to believe this world ever existed, but if so, it’s an effete, snobbish world that has little to do with the backbone of the community, farming.

One of the best stories is “Immoral Woman,” about Mrs. Sims, who wants to build on a new bedroom so that there’s space to turn her front room into a fancy parlor. Enterprisingly, she becomes a milliner and sets up shop where her husband works as a clerk. She’s a big success and the owner of the store is glad to have her, but then keeps her earnings to pay off the debts her husband, without informing her, ran up. Mrs. Sims rebels and leaves town, children in tow. She becomes a successful businesswoman with men working for her, and Lane has made her case, weak plot and all, against the slavery of marriage. Still, except for that fairy tale ending, “Immoral Woman” is full of details and rings true.

“Country Jake” is the tale of an awkward young hick, Ab Whitty, who pays his way through high school by cutting firewood. The town swells are endlessly contemptuous of him, except for the prettiest, most refined girl. Ab opens a store, saves his money, and puts himself in position to court his sweetheart, but then the banks fail, and everyone goes broke. Ab is undaunted and concocts a clever scheme to recoup his fortunes. It’s still not enough for the town’s snotty elite, so the hick elopes with his sweetheart to Hartville.

Old Home Town is entertaining, didactic, and not very believable. It’s as though Lane wanted to write her own version of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but didn’t have enough real knowledge to carry it off.

https://www.amazon.com/Old-Home-Town-Bison-Book/dp/0803279175/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1534604240&sr=1-1&keywords=old+home+town

DOWN ALONG THE PINEY, Foreword Review

DOWN ALONG THE PINEY

OZARKS STORIES

The men in John Mort’s collection, Down Along the Piney, are bent on doing, working through it, and putting up with it, with all the hard words and hard ways that characterize hardscrabble life in the Ozarks. These stories, stark and relentless, often center on masculinity and fathers, with men and women searching for father figures, running from them, and becoming them.

In the Ozarks of this book, there are few jobs. Industrial farming killed all the family farms, meth addiction has destroyed communities, and many people are ready to succumb to any savior they can afford, whether it be God, drugs, alcohol, or books.

In the longest story, “Top,” a lonely old soldier creates his own New Jerusalem, where people give all their worldly goods in exchange for work, food, housing, and Top’s guidance. When Top brings Birdy Blevins to live in his strange utopia, the young man finds a sudden and dangerous purpose that puts the whole community at risk.

In “Red Rock Place,” a son sends his father peacefully into death on the back of a Western fairy tale. In another story, a Mexican father brings his American-born daughter to his homeland only to discover that in Mexico, she has no home. In still other stories, PTSD profoundly affects characters, their families, and their prospects.

Characters’ focus is on the doing of things. Profoundly able as fix-it men, they conquer reluctant engines, re-chink log walls, hammer roofs, sand and plane logs. Though many can’t see a future in front of them, they can identify the problem of the moment. They get to hide or get lost in those immediacies until choices are simply gone.

Honest and sometimes hopeless, these stories offer haunting perspectives on poverty, post-military life, and American masculinity.

Reviewed by Camille-Yvette Welsch

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2017), by Caroline Fraser

Fraser’s biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (whose Little House Books occur out of Missouri but who lived most of her life in Mansfield) won the Pulitzer this year. It’s a masterful portrait. You should read it, or at least listen to it on a long trip. Fraser is a lyrical writer with a full command of the history that Wilder lived through. If you have any interest in Wilder, the Midwest, or the tough lives of pioneers, this is the book for you.

Since Prairie Fires has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere, I don’t see any merit in my reviewing the book house by house. However, a few things jumped out at me:

One is how much of the “truth” is represented in these short novels (or one long, episodic novel) aimed at children. There was debate as Wilder published how much was true, how much fabricated to fit the story, and most of the time Wilder does tell the “truth.” She insisted that she did, though “the truth” was also a marketing scheme.

Plain woman that she was, Wilder was also a good, natural writer, and could embroider scenes in search of a larger truth about childhood, family, poverty, farm life, and bad behavior. She also edited the truth when it began to seem unsavory for young children, but she didn’t lie. Every writer has a sense of that larger truth, but you don’t allow little lies to weaken it. Wilder, for the most part, didn’t.

Of course, you can’t tell the whole truth. Try it some time. What Wilder wrote was fiction.

Wilder’s somewhat infamous daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was inherently untruthful. To take just one example, she tried to work the Bloody Benders (in Kansas lore, innkeepers who lured in travelers, then robbed and killed them) into Little House on the Prairie, on the thin evidence that Pa may have visited there. Thankfully, in this instance, she wasn’t successful.

But on the subject of Lane, Fraser spends a lot of time speculating how much of the Little House books were written by Wilder, how much by Lane. Certainly, all of the recollections are Wilder’s. But Lane was much the superior writer in commercial terms, having produced a number of bestsellers. These were dishonest or at least sensational books designed to sell, and they have rightfully been forgotten. At the same time, Lane was a fine editor, and correspondence between mother and daughter reveals a solid partnership. We probably wouldn’t have the Little House books without Lane.

A second thing: Wilder was a Midwestern farm wife and very much belonged to the small town of Mansfield. She and her beloved husband, Almanzo, struggled mightily to pay the bills. Income from their hillfarm was never enough. They were hard hit by the Depression, and initially Wilder wrote to make a little money. She cut her teeth in farm magazines such as the Missouri Ruralist, and that series of small successes led to her authentic, fictional memoirs of childhood.

She didn’t write these until she was in her sixties! Those of us who grew up thinking the Little House stories were timeless classics, such as Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, probably didn’t realize that Wilder’s books were relatively new. They became over-night classics, really, in the 1940s and 1950s.

A last oddity, which Fraser diligently, delightfully records: Wilder was a rock-ribbed Republican, and like many rural folks she hated Franklin Roosevelt with all of his socialist schemes. Rose Wilder Lane was a leading adherent of the America First movement that boasted luminaries such as Charles Lindbergh and Ayn Rand. America Firsters—of which Wilder was not one, but with whom she sympathized—did not believe in foreign entanglements or in government programs to resuscitate the economy. If you failed in life, it was your fault; you should have worked harder. People on the dole were simply lazy. Lane was an isolationist, a nativist, and so, less fervently, was her mother. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Wilder and Lane would have been Trump people.