Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks, by Thomas Michael Kersen (2021)

Kersen, who spent much of his childhood in the Arkansas Ozarks, examines the “liminal” quality of life there. Here’s a definition of liminal I grabbed off the Internet: “1. relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process. 2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” We all know that the Ozarks are much like the rest of America, or at least the rest of rural America. But their relative isolation, their difficult geography, have also turned them into an experimental place, where alternative lifestyles, cults, and general kookiness can find a place to breathe. Where misfits fit.

Kersen has a good time portraying Eureka Springs, headquarters for that first America Firster and wannabe Nazi, Gerald L. K. Smith, but it’s a looney sort of town that hosts both an annual UFO convention and a passion play, and it appears to be where all the hippies went. Kersen’s solid history of the town shows it to be zany from the start, and most of all, how changeable it has been, always on the threshold of becoming something else.

The founding myths of the Ozarks are captured, and invented, by the long-running cartoon strip, L’l Abner. The strip itself is long gone, but in its day was as powerful as any novel or movie. L’l Abner himself was a trickster, a wise buffoon—the foolish thing that confounds the wise. The strip was always almost-ribald and almost out-of-bounds, but since it was ostensibly about hillbillies (and space aliens) mainstream America could just chuckle and move on.

Here’s where Kersen introduces the delightful, penetrating notion of anemoia. Anemoia “means being nostalgic for an imagined past.” That’s L’l Abner in a nutshell, as well The Shepherd of the Hills.

Kersen is perhaps at his most engaging in discussions of back-to-the-land efforts of the 1970s and 1980s in both Missouri and Arkansas. His own family moved from Texas to a sort of homestead near Fallsville, Arkansas—deep inside one of Arkansas’s wildest areas. His family had it hard at first, then did a little better, and that would seem to encapsulate most back-to-the-land experiments, though some did succeed and survive to this day. Several characteristics stand out: 1) back-to-the-land was a hard thing to do alone, so you needed an appetite for communal living (communitas); 2) the popular conception of communal living as Bacchanalia is silly, because of how physically hard such a life is; and 3) old-time Ozarkers (unlike conservative retirees from Chicago) will help you, because they know instinctively what you are experiencing for the first time.

Kersen rounds out his nine essays with an affectionate, somewhat bemused account of Ozarks rock groups such as the Dan Blocker Singers, Black Oak Arkansas, and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Black Oak and OMD produced a liminal sort of music—evolved from folk, not quite rockabilly, not exactly mainstream rock. He brings some personal encounters to this history and ties it into his accounts of communal living; music was a relief valve, and sometimes brought in much-needed cash.

Where Misfits Fit takes the reader into the 21st Century in its understanding of the liminal Ozarks. Because it remains such an imaginary place, one is left wondering what will happen next there. Perhaps it will turn out that white supremacists are imaginary, and that flying saucers and little green men really do exist.

Check it out: https://www.amazon.com/Where-Misfits-Fit-Counterculture-Influence/dp/1496835433/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=where+misfits+fit&qid=1633445889&sr=8-1

A Common Person and Other Stories, by R. M. Kinder (2021)

Kinder’s edgy title story is about a 76-year old woman, Maggie, who posts on Facebook that “maybe someone will shoot him before he takes office”—meaning Trump, of course, in 2016. Immediately, Maggie thinks better of the post and deletes it, but it seems nothing ever truly disappears from the amorphous Internet. Sure enough, men in suits come calling, and Maggie is detained overnight.

The episode is quietly terrifying but the government people are all polite and Maggie is released in the morning. The story might end there as a cautionary tale against the intrusive state, but it seems that the polite government people have seized Maggie’s guns. Because she didn’t really do anything subversive, she demands them back, beginning a struggle that might take the rest of her life.

Maggie is clearly a bit daft—but common, no question. And maybe normal in these Kafkaesque  times, in which a visit from the FBI seems rather like having your credit card denied or being threatened by a bill collector. Just part of everyday life.

Common does seem the same as normal in “Everyday Sky,” in which a lonely immigrant boy, Milosh, befriends a lonely hound dog. Not an abused dog, just a neglected one, rather like Milosh himself. Kinder isn’t afraid of happy endings, though Milosh has to work pretty hard for his. Kinder likes dogs, and “Brute” is really a reprise of “Everyday Sky” that also ends happily, though the protagonist is a complicated fellow with an elaborate scheme to rescue his own unwanted dog. A word about Kinder’s dogs, which must appear in at least half of these stories: they are characters, just as dogs are kind of like people in real life.

A COMMON PERSON is real life, that’s the thing. Real people live in her Missouri neighborhoods, which aren’t fancy or affluent but not poor or deprived, either. The houses were built a while ago and have had more than one set of occupants. Families are not exactly nuclear but take a wobbly aim in that direction. It’s the American Dream with some subtractions, but hanging on.

If people come to resemble their names, as Faulkner said, then maybe another common denominator of Kinder’s stories is kindness. There’s cruelty here, as shown by the boyfriend of  a girl who needs an abortion, in “Tradition.” But the girl’s sweetness and acknowledgement of reality—the kindness she shows her worthless boyfriend, the kindness of everyone besides the boyfriend—leaves the reader thinking the girl will be all right.

The saddest of Kinder’s stories may be “The Stuff of Ballads,” about a woman who’s hopelessly in love with an itinerant banjo player. He loves her, too, but not as much as his life on the road. Other lovers enter the picture, move on, and the woman loses some of her style, moves on herself, conquers alcoholism and even cancer. But, as Kinder puts it: “Like it or not, she was wholesome and honest and true.” She finds a qualified happiness in late life. It’s a happy ending shot through with regrets—but happy enough, given the kindness and good wishes of everyone around her. What a common person, being reasonable, might reasonably expect.

A COMMON PERSON is the 13th Richard Sullivan Prize winner for short fiction. The series began in 1996 and is published by the University of Notre Dame. The award is more rigorous than some of its kind in that writers must have published at least one other collection of stories in order to qualify. A COMMON PERSON is Kinder’s third collection; she’s also published two novels, AN ABSOLUTE GENTLEMAN and THE UNIVERSE PLAYING STRINGS.

SCATTERED LIGHTS, by Steve Wiegenstein (2020)

My first girlfriend was an Adventist who implored me to take a short course on the history of the faith. Nothing remarkable about that, other than how desperately shy I was, and how I almost got myself married at age 19. (Instead, I was drafted.) Anyhow, I explored the Adventists a little more and discovered how they developed out of a group called the Millerites, who gathered on a mountain in Massachusetts in 1844 to await the return of Jesus. When he failed to arrive, the event came to be known as the “Great Disappointment.”

Which is my long winded way of saying that I identified with Wiegenstein’s wonderful story, “Signs and Wonders,” in which a hapless, though likable couple join a small town crank’s pilgrimage to an Ozarks campground, where they await the Rapture. Typically, Wiegenstein avoids satire here; satire would be too easy for such a subtle writer. His characters are sad, but you sympathize with the two misfits who have somehow found love with their only possible matches.

In a kindred story that bookends the collection, “The End of the World,” Larry “works at the Dixie Food Mart,” where he runs the produce department with great pride. He befriends a co-worker, a pretty high school girl named Tami, against a co-worker who’s a lout, and for the blink of an eye you think there might be some hope for loveless Larry. But Larry is a fundamentalist who can’t resist handing out tracts, which becomes so much of a public nuisance he nearly loses his job. The end of the world isn’t really at hand, but it seems to be for Larry, and it would greatly improve things for him. Again, Wiegenstein doesn’t condemn Larry; his handing out tracts is similar, really, to an overly-zealous environmentalist handing out an entirely different kind of literature. The point isn’t Larry’s hopeless religion. Rather, it’s his hopeless life, for which the tracts are only a symptom.

Other stories range widely. There’s “The Fair,” a fine, ironic tale of a carnival worker, by most any measurement a loser, who despite himself becomes a hero, and even finds a nice girl to settle down with, though whether he’ll manage it is another question. “Why Miss Elizabeth Never Joined the Shakespeare Club” treats those small-town ladies’ clubs that grew up late in the 19th Century to stake their thin claims on culture. Somehow they still survive, though in this story they teeter on complete irrelevance.

Weigenstein takes an otherworldly turn in “Unexplained Aerial Phenomena,” about a young academic’s exploration of Ozarks UFOs, and, in a bit of a surprise, he explores the dating world in the comic “The Trouble with Women,” which might as well be about hand-to-hand combat.

Lovely collection, and with nary a miss. Everything is set in the south-central Ozarks, though the stories are perfectly universal. That is, if Eudora Welty and William Faulkner are universal.

After you’ve read this collection, you might want to try Wiegenstein’s highly entertaining historical novels, also set in southeastern Missouri. They follow the travails of a utopian colony from the Civil War onward:  Slant of Light (2012), This Old World (2014), and The Language of Trees (2017).  

ELDER MOUNTAIN: A Journal of Ozarks Studies, Issue 10: (2020), edited by Phillip Howerton

Here’s the tenth issue of Elder Mountain, out of Missouri State University in West Plains, and it’s a big one at 288 pages. Let’s give a nod first to the freshest voice: Faith Collins in “The Future of Beekeeping in the Missouri Ozarks,” a true, passionate tale of woe about bees dying from the verroa mite, lack of forage, and pesticides.  Ozarks ecology turns out to be a major theme of the issue. To give another example, there’s Denise Henderson Vaughn’s well-researched account, “The West Plains Sewage Lagoon Drama, 1978,” recounting the perils of placing sewage treatment plants above karst topography.

This double issue contains fiction by Steve Weigenstein (who also has a story collection coming out from Cornerpost Press, SCATTERED LIGHTS), Steve Yates (an excerpt from his novel, THE LAKES OF SOUTHERN HOLLOW), me, and a writer I was unfamiliar with, Matt McGowan. His wry “Sucker Flats” portrays meth users as zombies in a peculiar, decadent, irresistible setting: the abandoned lead mines south of Pittsburgh, Kansas, west of Webb City, Missouri.

There’s a great deal of poetry, from C. D. Albin (the journal’s founder), Susan Powell, Robert Lee Mahon, Douglas Stevens, Mark Spitzer, Gerry Sloan, Amy Wright Vollmar, and Paulette Guerin. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I had two favorites: Mahon with his precise “Cleaning Bluegill,” and his more philosophical, “The Altar,” about cleaning a catfish. I also loved the versatile Mark Spitzer’s “Wampus Conundrum” a lively, tongue-in-cheek indictment of how the poor bobcat shows up, stuffed, in every curio shop and yard sale.

Not least, Molly Bass Rector interviews Missouri’s poet-laureate, Karen Craigo, who says, “Every poem is sort of a little argument for a better way to think and be.” Nice thought. Maybe I’m old enough now to act on it.

Plenty of scholarship here: Charity Gibson’s unflinching treatment of the Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard case, which she ties into Ozarks myths both of the nurturing and the fallen mother; Kimberly D. Harper’s entertaining account of how the film Jesse James was made (partially) in Pineville;  and a terrific Civil War piece, “Memories of the Old Cannon Trail,” from Jim Vandergriff.

You can’t assemble writing about the Ozarks without lamenting how it used to be: two short essays by Jim Hamilton, “The Last of the Good Ol’ Days” and “Turn Right at Mohawk”;  and Virginia Howerton’s tender tribute to a neighbor,  “Evenings with Betty Dine.”

Steve Wiegenstein’s wonderful essay, “The Lure of the Ozarks: What’s the Bait, and Who’s the Fish?” references nostalgia, escape to Shangri-La (or Acadia), natural beauty, exploitation of cheap labor, mining, timber extraction, racism, and tourism in an eloquent attempt to define the region. A definition proves elusive, but no one could have come closer.

Finally, there are eight book reviews here, inviting you to keep exploring.

You can buy ELDER MOUNTAIN at


Ozarks RFD: Selected Essays, 2010-2015 (2020), by Jim Hamilton, and Hard Road Toward Home (2016), by C.D. Albin

Jim Hamilton published these short essays, 109 of them, in small town newspapers such as the Buffalo Reflex and the Bolivar Herald Free-Press, where he was the editor.

 Hamilton lovingly describes fishing on the Pomme de Terre River before it was dammed, folding in memories of his hard-working father. He describes beagles, who apparently never stop howling; how comfortable overalls are; and the delight an old man takes in TV Westerns, particularly Rawhide. Though he’s never political, he movingly describes sitting in a classroom when he learned of the Kennedy assassination, an experience shared by many school children in 1963.

In one of his more extraordinary pieces, Hamilton writes of those chatty, often unpaid “community correspondents” in Marshfield, Elkland, Lebanon, Phillipsburg, etc. You know: so-and-so is back from Hawaii, and Johnny Roebuck just got through basic training, and the daffodils are particulary bright in the cemetery this year, and Rev. Cooke turned in a wonderful sermon last Sunday on the cheerful giver. Hamilton knows all these folks—unsung heroes, indeed.

Hamilton and his kid brother grew up on a succession of  little farms, and most of the time they kept dairy cattle. Milking cows before you went to school was simply part of a farm kid’s daily routine. Used to be, the profusion of little dairies—relying on pasture—distinguished the Ozarks from Kansas or even northern Missouri, where an economy based on row-crops makes more sense.

There are many fewer dairies now, of course, and a lot of small towns are essentially ghost towns. Hamilton doesn’t dwell on this decline, or even recognize it. He’s a good-humored man, an optimist. Even when dealing with personal tragedies, such as his daughter’s death, he tries to remain positive. Without proselytzing, he leans on his faith.

Still, he’s never sentimental or cloying—often the flaw of collections such as this one.

Though Hamilton is no humorist, he can be amusing, as in the pride he takes in the Hamilton Melt, a sandwich named after him. You can only get one at the Maple Street Grill in Buffalo.

Toward the end of his collection, Hamilton offers up a fine, Will Rogers-like meditation on those collections of nuts and screws and “bent nails” many of us keep in coffee cans and the like. One day you might need just the right screw, just the right clamp, and you won’t have to make a trip to the hardware. This little piece, “A Mind Like a Bucket of Bolts,” is a metaphor for how Hamilton thinks, he says. One person puts a label on everything, and proceeds logically from point A to point B. But thoughts slosh about in Hamilton’s brain, and thus his highly varied collection.

Hamilton’s musings are gentle and universal. Often, they are wise.


Hard Road Toward Home (2016), by C.D. Albin

Albin, a professor at Missouri State University—West Plains, won the prestigious Press 53 contest with this collection, full of tough, sad, often woebegone people mostly in northern Arkansas.

The title story concerns Lid McKee, a laid-off shoe factory worker who’s trying to make a living as a logger, but it’s rough work and, at 56, he’s really too old. Lid’s worst problem, however, is his angry son, Reed, who’s been in and out of trouble and likely will be heading off to prison for his meth production. The despair Lid feels over his tough life and his hopeless son is imbued with Albin’s compassion, but it’s also a sort of proletarian portrait of generational decline in a region full of poorly-educated people who can’t find work.

Several of Albin’s stories are about fathers and sons. In “Punch List,” a contractor fires his son, and years later, his grandson, also, for defective work, but then he begins to accept that the defect isn’t really in their work, but himself. In “Four Fine Horses,” the reader sees the father/son relationship from the son’s point of view: the sensitive son, the tyrant father, moving toward an imperfect reconciliation.

In “At Wood’s Edge,” a young woman from St. Louis, married to a busy doctor, feels marooned in her country house. One day, she spots a listless doe at wood’s edge; the doe seems like a stand-in for herself. She tries to save the doe but there’s nothing to be done, just like there’s nothing to be done about her loneliness.

The mystery at the heart of things—the son you can’t reach, the doe appearing out of nowhere like a celestial messenger—is really what makes Albin interesting. Sometimes, Albin introduces notes of hope or redemption into that mystery. In “For You,” a brand-new husband tries to find his way with his dour wife; the key to success lies in his fledgling relationship with his mercurial stepdaughter. In what is superficially a baseball story, “Judgment Call,” a teacher, Norman Kissee, who’s working as an amateur umpire, gets drilled by a fast ball. The catcher should have blocked the pitch but didn’t. That young man is one of Norman’s students, and slowly Norman sorts it out that the judgment he made years ago, involving the young catcher’s father, still has ramifications. Was Norman wrong, long ago? Yes and no. But what he does next may begin to heal an old wound.

Albin’s morose, thoughtful tales of rural life ring true. He always stays real and never leans on cliches or melodrama. It’s hard to think of another writer quite like him.


My Trip to Mars the Moon and Venus (1956), by Buck Nelson

Buck Nelson, a bachelor sawmill operator and farmer, lived near the small town of Mountain View, Missouri. His strange little book drew quite a lot of attention locally and with what might be called the UFO community. Nelson spoke at flying saucer conventions (to people who called themselves “saucerians.”) Back then, many thought flying saucers were real. The beauty of such convictions is that you can’t prove them right or wrong, at least not entirely. All the facts may be wrong, but the conviction remains.

Buck’s story was transcribed by a compatriot, Fanny Lowery, and he describes an extraterrestrial friend, Bucky, who’s like your average human. Buck’s dog, Ted, accompanied Buck on his travels. There’s a nice photo of Ted, as if the dog’s existence proves the travels.

The basic storyline is that a flying saucer lands in Buck’s pasture now and again, and he journeys by some sort of magnetic force to Mars, Earth’s moon, and Venus. Buck’s details about these places are skimpy and wouldn’t have passed muster even in the 1950s. They seem to be derived from Edgar Rice Burroughs, various magazines, and the Bible. Of course, this was long before we landed on the moon, explored Mars with any number of robotic missions, and figured out that Venus is a gaseous hell.

From his narrative, Buck seems sincere, if a little daft. Lots of people thought he was crazy, and he tells us that his old age pension was taken away exactly for that reason—which doesn’t seem  like a reason. The trouble with Nelson’s little book isn’t that it’s about flying saucers, but that it’s so lacking in detail.

But you can read it for its quirky charm. You’ll learn how to build a flying saucer detector, which you might want to hang from your bedroom ceiling, in case they come at night.


Dry County (2018), by Jake Hinkson

Reverend Richard Weatherford is the well-regarded pastor of a Baptist church in Stock, Arkansas, somewhere north of Little Rock and Conway. Richard is married to Penny, mother of five, insistently “not a feminist” and the nearest to a sympathetic character that Hinkson draws, though in the end she’s as much a Machiavellian as her husband.

Their marriage is a sexless, antiseptic sham, though both partners take church work seriously, and both are extremely conscious of their public roles. Because it’s expected of them, they’re good parents.

It seems Richard had a dalliance some time ago, with a dreamy college dropout named Gary Doane. An affair with a woman would be bad enough, but a homosexual affair, in a conservative small town, is potentially ruinous. Gary now wants to be paid off for his silence—because, ironically, he has a girlfriend, and wants to begin life with her in some other town.

Richard has no idea where to find the money. But he knows he has to, and that he has to do it off the books. It’s an election year. To the bafflement of outsiders, many counties in Arkansas are dry, but there’s a proposal on the ballot to turn Richard’s county wet. Richard shakes down a young proponent of  the wet position, Brian Harten, by claiming he, Richard, will switch his support from dry to wet. That is, if Brian can come up with $30,000.

The shakedown results in a crime which in turn leads to the involvement of the closest thing Stock has to a criminal underclass. And that leads to murder—in the church foyer, the night before Easter.

By this time, the reader has lost all sympathy for Richard, and marvels at his coldbloodedness, his cunning, his tendency to justify his wicked actions with an arid, rationalizing philosophy.

Dry County is not really an Ozarks story, which is not to say that it’s unbelievable. It’s just that Stock’s citizens could be from Nebraska or South Carolina. This was also true of the young losers in Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red, set one hundred miles northeast of  Dry County, in Missouri (https://downalongthepiney.com/2018/03/). Either there’s no longer anything to distinguish the Ozarks from other regions, or Hinkson is expressing a sort of contempt for his contemptible characters by placing them in Arkansas.

Not to mention a contempt for Baptist preachers, because Richard is no Arthur Dimmesdale. There’s nothing noble in his fall. He doesn’t even fall. He’s a hypocrite without one redeeming virtue. Hypocrite may be too generous. Richard’s a sociopath.

Just about the only book-length fiction set in the Ozarks and published commercially is crime fiction. You’ve got to wonder whether a Donald Harrington or a Doug Jones could find their way in these days of declining readerships.

Hinkson uses every trick in the book to enhance the readability of his garish tale: a punchy style that’s mostly dialogue; a shifting point of view, but always in first-person; and a trendy, present-tense narration. The story simply zips along, and comes to a clever, rousing finish. And there’s a twist that reminds one of the Woody Allen movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors. If you like noirish crime fiction, Dry County ought to do.






Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America, by Bill Geist (2019)

Geist, a humorist and travel writer widely known for his CBS Sunday Morning features, worked at Arrowhead Lodge back in the 1950s and early 1960s, as a waiter, janitor, dish washer, septic tank supervisor, and bellhop. Arrowhead was owned by Geist’s aunt and uncle and might be thought of as a little bit upscale.

The lodge was built in 1935 just a few years after Bagnell Dam was completed. It lasted in some form through 2006.

Geist portrays a number of  “outlandish” characters, none of whom seem terribly outlandish. His Uncle Ed, the proprietor of Arrowhead, always drove a new Cadillac and drank too much; he was loud and rather a bully. But his flamboyance seems to have been for the benefit of the tourists, who could go away describing him as an unforgettable character. At base, Ed seems to have been a shrewd businessman who ran a profitable enterprise.

Geist has a good time commenting on Lake of the Ozarks kitsch: hillbilly golf, hillbilly souvenirs such as corncob pipes, and roadside attractions such as Tom’s Monkey Jungle and Max Allen’s Reptile Gardens. Nothing intrinsically Ozarkian here; you could have found similar establishments in Florida or the Wisconsin Dells. More interestingly, Geist  writes about the Ozarks Opry and the appearances of such luminaries as Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubbs, both of whom sometimes frequented the lodge. Geist just drops names, however. He doesn’t offer anecdotes.

He’s brutally accurate when he points out that these cheap amusements appealed to the cheap seats: working class people for whom Lake of the Ozarks was almost exotic. On limited budgets, tourists could swim, fish, take a boat ride; they could play carnival games; they could feast until they fell sick; they could smoke cigars and drink themselves under the table at Arrowhead’s “Pow Wow Lounge.” Working as a waiter, Geist knew these cheapskates well. They didn’t tip.

Geist alludes to a lot of sexual hijinks, and these passages are the book’s most energetic. He fondly recalls a skinny-dipping party with lodge employees, recapturing the feelings of a teenaged boy who had yet to experience sex. These are summer camp stories and nothing more, but they’ll jog memories for some readers.

Lake of the Ozarks isn’t about the Ozarks, really. The one exception is a lovely chapter describing an old woman’s (Grandma’s) last day in the place where she’s always lived, Linn Creek. She must leave, her house will be leveled, because of Bagnell’s rising waters.

Geist allows that he’s “an aficionado of the tacky and outrageous.” His book is often fun when it brings kitsch to life, just like cruising a flea market can be fun. It’s all quite superficial and Geist is on safe, middlebrow, CBS Sunday Morning ground. It’s when he tries to make a larger point that he comes across as phony:

I don’t recall any whispers or snide remarks about Mike’s [homosexual] proclivities. Funny about these Ozark folk, these presumed rednecks. You never heard racial slurs or nasty remarks about sexual preferences  . . . Not the way you would in far more cosmopolitan St. Louis or Chicago. Now you would hear Baptists badmouthing Methodists.

The passage maintains the stereotype that “these Ozark folk” are somehow different from the rest of humanity. That somehow, in their rustic simplicity, they are more decent and forgiving than city slickers. But if you were white, growing up in most any Missouri small town with a sundown law, you certainly heard racial slurs. And there was verbal abuse—if you were heterosexual—of homosexuals; that’s one of the reasons why gay “folk” tended to leave for the big city. Finally, you wouldn’t hear Baptists badmouthing Methodists. It never mattered that much; Geist is just repeating a mindless refrain that sounds kind of reasonable. This is lazy, thoughtless writing.

Kitsch ain’t what it used to be, and it’s all made in China and sold in warehouses along I-44. The Lake of the Ozarks is still there, of course, though arguably the crown for kitsch—and certainly, the surreal—has moved on to Branson.  Geist’s book is agreeable in some ways but it’s not worth $26. Check it out from your library or buy it used.


Back Yonder: An Ozark Chronicle, by Wayman Hogue (1932, 2016)

In a way, Back Yonder is a standard story of growing up in the backwoods of the Ozarks before the roads were good and the REA brought electricity. It covers what you’d expect: the crops for a subsistence lifestyle, home life in simple log or clapboard structures, what passed for schooling,  courtship rituals, wild goings-on at camp meetings, traveling salesmen, and finally, the rise of the young man/chronicler as he gains an education, gets married, and finds a career.

First published in 1932, Hogue’s memoir is strikingly illustrated with the woodcuts of his son-in-law, Howard Simon, bringing to mind other similarly illustrated backwoods titles from the 1930s such as Thames Williamson’s  The Woods Colt (https://downalongthepiney.com/?s=woods+colt ). With his sprightly introduction and endnotes, Professor Brooks Blevins sets the book’s context and explains its significance in the Ozarks canon. It’s among the first of such memoirs, for one thing, and was favorably reviewed in publications as sophisticated as the New York Times and Scribner’s.

Though presented as a literal memoir, Blevins points out that Back Yonder is very much fictionalized: it’s hard to say what town or even region the book is set in (other than the Ozarks themselves), and the young Wayman Hogue is a composite, only approximately Wayman Hogue himself.

But autobiographies are never literally true even when, or especially when, they get all the facts right. Hogue’s discussion of Ozarks vernacular rings true if you have also read through the lexicon of the master, Vance Randolph. His recollections of the primitive educational system—where county funding had to be supplemented by subscriptions, or gathering fees from parents—nicely dovetails with Guy Howard’s Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks (https://downalongthepiney.com/?s=walkin%27+preacher+of+the+).

Some few passages are so eccentric they must be true, such as Hogue’s account of a worthless neighbor who lusted after a widow 30 years younger, despite his marriage to an (extremely) long-suffering woman and their kids. The man claimed God had appeared to him in a vision and told him, since his marriage was only common law, that therefore he must cast off his sinful wife—and marry the widow.

Hogue offers up a wealth of such yarns. His tongue-in-cheek account of a back-country debating society, taking on the question, “Which is more attractive to the eye, Art or Nature?” is a hoot worthy of Mark Twain. One debater offers proof that art is more attractive, but in rebuttal, the champion for Hogue’s side declaims:

“The womurn war all dressed up in purty shoes and purty hats . . . and they war awful purty. The womurn was nature and the close was art, and it war mouty hard to tell which war the purtiest . . . [but] s’posen them womurn had a-pulled off them ar close. ’Course they didn’t do it, but I say jist s’posen they had . . . Then which would the men be a looking at, the womurn or the close? Honer’ble Jedges,  which would you a-been looking at?”

Hogue follows with a visceral account of a public hanging, which he presents dispassionately while including profiles of the train robbers who were hanged. He invents dialogue between them in which they all rationalize their failures in life, blaming them on rich folks in passages that again are reminiscent of Mr. Mark Twain.  Any notion that Hogue experienced all of this personally is out the window at this point.

As an aside, if there were a market for Westerns anymore, Hogue offers up a plot ready to go.

On a day when he’s cheated out of a teaching job, he—or Wayman Hogue, the composite—gets into a brutal, no-rules, back-alley fight, and lands in jail for a day. His opponent in the fight has influence in several counties, and ruins Wayman’s chances at a job elsewhere. So he goes back to school, and is on his way out of the hills forever.

Many a “good ole days” reminiscence is spoiled by a refusal to acknowledge just how difficult and mean life could be back in the hills. Hogue plays it straight. He’s good-humored but unsentimental. He may not be literal, but he’s honest.  What might at first seem to be just another Arcadian exercise becomes, in the end, a thoughtful memoir.


The Literature of the Ozarks (2019), edited by Phillip Douglas Howerton

Howerton, a professor at Missouri State University—West Plains, surveys Ozarks literature from the travel journal of the unofficial founder of Ozarks writing, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft,  through the contemporary scene. He opens the collection with a wonderful, very foreign Osage creation story, put into English by the Omaha Indian scholar, Francis La Flesche. Otherwise, while the 19th Century entries are notable historically, they’re rather thin on literary merit. You’ve got to appreciate Howerton’s diligence, but there is no unsung Hawthorne or Twain to be found here.

The anthology grows more compelling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the startling 1906 essay by Springfield writer Benjamin F. Adams, “What the Negro Must Do.” As Howerton points out, Adams touches bases with the great conciliator, Booker T. Washington, but hints that one day the races will no longer be separate-but-equal, but merely equal. Not that Adams’ essay was in any way responsible, but three months after its publication, three black men were lynched on the Springfield square.

Howerton’s painstaking introductions are all like that, many of them more interesting than the entries. If you just read those introductions, you’d have a fine, long essay on Ozarks writing. Did you know that Robert Heinlein (yes, Grandmaster Robert Heinlein, the sf writer) hailed from Butler, Missouri, and that his famous YA title, Starman Jones, featured a protagonist from the hills? Or that Vance Randolph, one of the Ozarks’ most famous writers, certainly its best-known folklorist, was a high school dropout? Or that, much later, he came just short of earning his Ph.D? Or that he made most of his money with what could be called hack writing, churning out Little Blue Books for the Haldeman-Julius firm, that iconoclastic, radical publisher in Girard, Kansas?

I wish Haldeman-Julius were still around.

Randolph is represented with one of his short stories, an arch little tale of a friendless simpleton, the Ozarks version of a village idiot, who grows fascinated with the U.S. mail, finding that he can get all kinds of free stuff simply by requesting it.

Delightfully, Howerton includes an excerpt from Sycamore, by a novelist Randolph very much admired,  Constance Wagner. Sycamore is an acerbic portrait of an Arkansas resort town, probably Eureka Springs. Wagner wrote for The New Yorker, and one is tempted to say that her style is as historic as her novel: immaculate, correct, conservative. Still, she was a consummate novelist. In particular, her minor characters, ranging from dissolute hillbillies to cultural poseurs, show as much mastery as anyone’s in this anthology.

Howerton presents a respectful portrait of the best-known, and most pilloried, Ozarks writer, Harold Bell Wright, along with the opening chapter of The Shepherd of the Hills. His evenhandedness here is admirable.

Hound dogs are ably portrayed in MacKinlay Kantor’s almost technical description of the art of fox hunting, with an excerpt from The Voice of Bugle Ann; dogs merge with pathos in a story of a country boy in the big city, Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows.

Donald Harington, the fabulist whose novels many think to be the best ever to come out of the Ozarks,  is represented with a sparkling, tongue-in-cheek essay on (among other things) Ozarks place-names, “Finding the Place, Naming the Place.”

Active contemporaries are well-represented with excerpts from the first novel, Slant of Light, in Steve Wiegenstein’s utopian series; a story reprinted from Steve Yates’ Juniper Prize-winning collection, Some Kinds of Love; and an excerpt from Daniel Woodrell’s most recent novel, The Maid’s Version. C. D. Albin’s violent, despairing father-and-son story, “Hard Toward Home,” provides an example of the newer sort of Ozarks story that eschews dialect and back-woods stereotypes to portray people who could exist anywhere, or at least anywhere rural.

Howerton includes a great deal of poetry, most of it free verse and completely accessible, most of it on Ozarks themes such as the fascinating narrative poem by Native American John Rollins Ridge, “The Arkansas Root Doctor,” a comic poem emphasizing the exotic and mythic Ozarks. The most technically proficient poets here are probably John Gould Fletcher, with his lyrical “Thunderstorm in the Ozarks;” and the beloved University of Arkansas poet,  Miller Williams, with “Main Street,” a satirical take on urban sprawl: “The city limits signs of six towns/move toward each other like suspicious children.”

Omissions? Yes, quite a few. The book, at 300 pages, could easily have been 500, though of course a 500-page tome would have been unwieldy, and driven up the cost still more. Howerton does note that some excerpts were unavailable because their publishers wanted too much money. But for what’s it’s worth, Douglas Jones is a strange omission, particularly with This Savage Race, one of the best novels about pioneers ever written, and his Pea Ridge novel, Elkhorn Tavern. There’s the scandalous Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, with her linked short stories portraying Mansfield, Missouri: Old Home Town (https://downalongthepiney.com/?s=old+home+town). In The Moonflower Vine (https://downalongthepiney.com/?s=moonflower), Jetta Carleton’s nostalgic prose rivals Constance Wagner’s, and what’s more, Carleton was home-grown. Sue Hubbell’s ecological memoir about beekeeping, A Country Year (https://downalongthepiney.com/?s=hubbell ), has been a favorite since its publication in 1984.

Also not included are any number of genre efforts, and any number of memoirs from old newspaper editors, not all of which are rose-colored treacle. These latter, of course, are seldom gathered in any anthology.

Howerton has done yeoman’s work here. You can read through the anthology slowly, savoring every entry, and when you’re done, you’ll have a thorough understanding of who Vance Randolph and Harold Bell Wright were, and who is valiantly carrying on their work. The Literature of the Ozarks would seem to be a logical text for any course on Ozarks literature or history, and it belongs in every library.