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.