Yonder Mountain: An Ozarks Anthology (2013), edited by Anthony Priest

Yonder Mountain is a sort of sequel, or companion to Ozark, Ozark: A Hillside Reader (1985), edited by Miller Williams, the poet and creative writer teacher at the University of Arkansas. The older book  was published by the University of Missouri; the newer one comes from the University of Arkansas.

Priest gathers several writers who seem like old friends: Donald Harington, with a previously  unpublished, Stay More tale, “Telling Time;” William Harrison, with his hilarious take on a good old boy encountering the absurd modern world of air travel, “Tickets to Nowhere;” and Miller Williams himself, with two of his philosophical, rueful poems.

Perhaps because of Williams’s influence, or because he’s a poet himself, Priest includes a large  sampling of poetry, from his own meditation on Ozarks origins, “Aux Arcs,” to a good selection from Michael Burns, the late, much-missed creative writer instructor at Missouri State University in Springfield. Other poets include James Whitehead, Sara Burge, Walter Bargen, Marcus Cafagña, Jim Hamilton, Andrea Hollander, Jane Hoogestraat, Phillip Howerton, Dave Malone, Jan Peterson Roddy, and Pattiann Rogers. Almost all of these poets wax nostalgic over rural life when they were kids. Or they offer up their close observations of the natural world.

Fiction writers include the well-known Daniel Woodrell and Steve Yates, represented by excerpts from their books. Jo Van Arkel’s story, “Swimming at Flat Bridge, 1963,” is a lilting portrait of country life on a summer day long ago. Katie’s Estill’s startling “The Three Beauties,” tells a story more common than you might think: a Filipino girl becomes a mail order bride to a lonely man in Wyoming, then hitchhikes east, ending up penniless, without papers, but somehow triumphant deep in the Ozarks.

Priest gathers nonfiction as well. In an excerpt from his book, Arkansas/Arkansaw, “Jethro and Abner: An Arkansaw Counterculture,” Brooks Blevins gives the amusing, woeful, irresistible histories of both The Beverly Hillbillies and Dogpatch, USA. There’s a meditation on nature from the late conservationist, Charles J. Farmer; and a lyrical account from Bonnie Stepenoff, framed as journal entries, on the history of CCC work at Big Spring, drawn from her book, Big Spring Autumn.  And there’s a marvelous account of the difficult birth and tough childhood of Arkansas’s most famous hillbilly, Orval Faubus, excerpted from Roy Reed’s book, The Life and Times of an American Prodigal.

It’s a revealing gathering of work, quite the equal of its parent. But if one had to point out a difference, the Ozarks as a distinct region with a distinct population was still a real thing in Ozark, Ozark, while the Ozarks of Yonder Mountain is filled with the relics of how things used to be. The small towns are often ghost towns. People still struggle mightily, the region is still poor and isolated, and once in a while you hear that old hillbilly drawl. But these are the folks you meet at the strip mall, as modern, as universal, as cell phones.


Poison Spring (2014), by Johnny D. Boggs

The Battle of Poison Spring was fought in 1864 down in southwestern Arkansas, in Ouachita County. Though minor in terms of the Civil War as a whole, the battle is famous for the Confederate slaughter and mutilation of black troops, most of them ex-slaves, from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.

Poison Spring is primarily a YA novel, or at least an adult novel with a teenaged protagonist. Young Travis Ford, whose father is off fighting with the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry, is still too young for war. But he has plenty of chores and he takes seriously his job of protecting his mother and siblings from army predation, not to mention the malicious whims of various Home Guard characters.

At first, his family seems safe and relatively well-fed. There are some pleasant interludes when Travis escapes to the family’s sawmill, where he lets his imagination run free, dreaming he’s a musketeer out of Alexandre Dumas. He enjoys writing adventure stories in the notebook Miss Mary Frederick gave him. She’s a slave-owner but kind to Travis. Then this gracious Southern lady beats one of her slaves, and Travis begins to wonder over the contradiction between superficial kindness and inured  cruelty.

The Fords lose their mules and chickens, and the entire family almost dies when a radical, probably lecherous Southern preacher turns against Travis’s mother, who has abolitionist leanings. Travis and his mother show cleverness and pluck, but without food, without community support, they can no longer hold their family together.

Things boil over when the Confederate Texans and the Yankees, including the colored infantry, vie for nearby Camden. The Yankees, out of food, try to steal corn from the Confederates, and in the process over-extend their lines. The black Yankees win at Camden but must retreat into the swamp near Poison Spring, where, out of ammunition, they are massacred, then mutilated, by the Texas Confederates. (The Choctaw Confederates are more merciful.)

Soon after, Travis’s father comes home. He was on the Confederate side of the massacre, and even though he did not participate, he’s overcome with guilt. In fact, he has deserted, and now the family must escape. In the process, they smuggle out two old friends who happen to be black. There’s a Dumas-like deception—and redemption for Travis’s father.

Some 300 Union soldiers died at Poison Spring. Most could have been taken prisoner, but weren’t because they were ex-slaves. Of course, as the elder Ford notes, death might have been preferable to life in a Confederate prison, but soldiers can’t make such distinctions. Boggs, the well-known writer of Westerns, illustrates for young people—and adults—that war is barbarism, the breakdown of everything. He brings an obscure, but consequential, battle memorably to life.


Dahlia’s Gone (2007), by Katie Estill

A young woman, Dahlia Everston, is found dead, her body drained of blood, in this delicate, almost poetic mystery set in south central Missouri. Estill keeps you guessing whodunit, but really the story is not about Dahlia so much as how her death affects those who knew her, in particular three women: Dahlia’s stepmother, Norah, also the mother of a “slow” teenage boy, Timothy; Patti Callahan, the sheriff’s deputy who seems to do most of the department’s sleuthing, particularly where crimes against women are involved; and Sandra (“Sand”) Williams, a character who got an education and eagerly left the Ozarks behind for a complicated, professional career. Seeking respite, she now lives with her husband, Frank (who’s mostly absent) in a cabin on Seven Point River that she inherited from her father.

Sand and Norah instinctively dislike each other. Norah is a fundamentalist of a particularly muleheaded sort, regarding anyone outside the church as freethinking and wicked, and that’s the very sort of person Sand, with her liberal, feminist notions, is bound to despise. Nonetheless, the two are neighbors, and Norah asks Sand to look in on Dahlia and Timothy while she and her husband take a vacation. Sand finds Dahlia’s body and feels guilty thereafter, her guilt enhanced because she hadn’t wanted Norah’s chore, and perhaps postponed it a little too long.

Norah goes off the rails, hugging her retarded, judgmental son suffocatingly near, driving her grief-stricken husband away, eventually growing so glum and hysterical she accuses Sand of the murder. It’s left to Patti, a sort of good ole gal with a difficult romantic life, to apply reason to the scene, and in the process bring into the 21st Century this rural county’s attitudes toward sexual assault. Several suspects present themselves, one of them in California; eliminating this particular unsavory character narrows the investigation—and solves an old mystery. The matter of the body drained of blood is illuminated—phosphorescently speaking—with an intriguing luminol test, in which Estill proves her police procedural chops. The luminol test also narrows the list of suspects.

In the end, all three women are transformed into smarter, more sympathetic people. Everyone seems older, more sorrowful, but there’s a note of hope. And yes, the murderer is revealed.


Sandy and Wayne: A Novella (2015), by Steve Yates

Yates draws upon his summer jobs with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to imagine this love story between a tough highway inspector, Sandy Coker, and a tough road builder, Wayne Sheridan. Wayne represents a Missouri company that takes over a job botched by an Arkansas firm, which allows Yates to layer in the minor, though always-present rivalry between the states.

Sandy, an Arkansas country girl who got an education, is assigned to inspect Wayne’s work. He’s a good engineer who’s loyal to his patriarch of a boss, while Sandy is mostly loyal to her profession; as a woman doing a man’s job, she’s had to be better than her colleagues, and above reproach. Inspectors are seldom popular with builders, and Sandy has a chip on her shoulder besides. Wayne deflects Sandy’s bravado and comes at her whimsically, sideways.

It won’t do for an highway inspector to have an affair with a highway builder but the reader knows it will happen, and once it does, Yates shows the tender side of both characters. Sandy raises fine horses, and partly it’s those horses that turn Wayne and Sandy into a couple. But both are slipping into middle age and have grown too headstrong to make sacrifices. So there is something half-finished about their romance, like Wayne’s old Camaro, sanded-down and primed, but still needing paint.

Yates’ love story portrays a modern relationship in which no one is willing to give. If the woman won’t yield to reason, is she worth the bother? If the man thinks she should conform to his needs, does the woman really want him? Maybe life alone is superior to living where you don’t want to, or giving up your farm and your beautiful horses. Or maybe both characters are simply selfish, and allow pride to overcome love. Maybe pride always defeats love.

And maybe it doesn’t. Maybe there’s a way. Yates offers up his thoughtful, lyrical meditation in the wonderful form of a novella—all the precision of a short story, all the complexity of a novel.

Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State (2009), by Brooks Blevins

Blevins goes all the way back to the founding document of Ozarks writing, the traveler Henry Schoolcraft’s journal from 1818, to show where Arkansas’s benighted reputation began. Schoolcraft says of one Arkansas family: “Their manner and conversation were altogether rough and obscene . . . characterized in partaking of whatever was disgusting, terrific, rude, and outré in all.” Hillmen cared only for hunting and valued their dogs more than their women. So begins the legend of the Arkansas—Ozarks—hillbilly, and things don’t improve much.

The hillbilly became the dominant Ozarks image: a dissolute, illiterate, often criminal fellow addicted to moonshine. But an alternative, nearly opposite narrative also rose: the white Ozarker was a primitive but pure Anglo-Saxon who lived in harmony with nature and was naturally virtuous. This Ozarker was popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Harold Bell Wright and his myriad imitators.

Neither portrait was entirely false, and anyhow the state had few defenders even into the 1950s. Even today. The state vied with Mississippi for the rank of 49th or 50th in seemingly endless categories.

Blevins traces the state’s dubious image through some godawful novels and a spate of Ma-and-Pa-Kettle-type movies from the 1930s in good, scholarly fashion. Casual readers may be most  interested in Blevins’ history from World War II onward: for instance, his portrait of the  hillbilly politician, Orval Faubus. In 1957, Faubus added racism to the image of a state that had never really been Southern. Famously, Faubus put up every imaginable obstacle to the “Little Rock Nine” in their efforts to integrate Central High. Faubus was also an overwhelming influence in the development of Dogpatch, USA, which took its inspiration from Al Capp’s comic strip. Essentially, Dogpatch was Harrison, Arkansas’s attempt to make money off its own ridiculous image.

Another Arkansas politician, Bill Clinton, comes off well by comparison, though Blevins shows how the Rhodes Scholar could play up his Bubba-dom when it served him to do so.

In one of Blevins’ more startling stories, Marilyn Quayle, wife of the candidate for vice president, insulted the state at the 1992 Republican Convention. She then tried to “ameliorate bruised feelings” with a letter addressed to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Arizona.

In other words, this poor state can’t catch a break. One is left in awe at the amount of second-rate material Blevins had to digest, but he wrote a fine, sometimes amazing book. His history of the Arkansas image is honest, self-deprecatory, and a little sad.

The Shepherd of the Hills (1907), by Harold Bell Wright

For better or worse, The Shepherd of the Hills is the most famous Ozarks book. It’s an Arcadian novel, a European, sentimental style of romance in which a bucolic, or pastoral lifestyle is held up as a vanished ideal. Part of the conceit is that urban life is corrupt and enervating. This had resonance in a country that in the early 20th Century was still largely rural; if you fled to the city, even if you did well there, you might grow nostalgic for the simple virtues of country life.

Here’s the story: A mysterious, religious old man, Daniel “Dad” Howitt, comes to the Ozarks near Branson, Missouri—as did the Disciples of Christ minister, Harold Bell Wright. This was Branson before the big lakes were built, and, indeed, before there was a Shepherd of the Hills theme park.

Dad Howitt becomes a shepherd in a place called Mutton Hollow. Nary a sheep walks across the pages, but anyhow it’s hard to miss the metaphor of Howitt, like Jesus, as a shepherd of men. He’s a gentle, sorrowful old fellow who is readily accepted as wise and good. He comes to the aid of many a neighbor, most notably Old Matt Matthews, his wife, Aunt Polly, and their stalwart, bashful, not overly-bright son, Young Matt. He also befriends Jim Lane, a good man with a dark past, and his beautiful daughter, Sammy.

Everyone sees that young Matt and Sammy are made for each other, but Sammy longs for sophistication and has sworn herself to Ollie Stewart, who has ties to the big city. The reader knows immediately that cardboard Ollie will lose out—yes, he may have fine clothes, but he’s a superficial, materialistic man, and a weakling.

Sammy has a third suitor, Wash Gibbs, a brutish fellow and the leader of the Bald Knobbers. (The Bald Knobbers, those vigilantes who arose after the Civil War and tried to keep order, then devolved into rural gangs, had run their course by the time of Wright’s novel. Wright’s thugs have no politics, only a dark, vague past. But they rob a bank, lynch an innocent man, and contribute to the denouement.)

Eventually, as the reader knows she will, Sammy chooses Matt, but not until after a rather mawkish course from Dad on how to be a lady. Some book learning helps, but Sammy discovers she’s already a lady, a simple, rustic beauty with a pure soul.

Finally, we learn the reason for Dad’s Ozarks sojourn. Many years before, his son came to the region and fell in love with Old Matt’s daughter. The boy, an artist, painted the simple, pure maiden standing by a stream, and the painting, now missing, became famous. Alas, when he returned to the city, the boy spurned his country girl, leaving her to die in childbirth. Her son is a sickly, but prescient woods colt who wanders about speaking dark truths, like an Ariel or Caliban. When Dad Howitt’s son, overcome with guilt, returns to the hills to marry the girl, he finds that she’s dead, and then he, too, disappears. But no, no, Dad’s Howitt’s son is alive! He lives deep in a cavern, one last, noble deed to perform.

Wright’s romantic distortions make it difficult to tease out what character the Ozarks actually had a century ago, if it had any character beyond its isolation and poverty. However, Wright’s version of the Ozarks is more agreeable than the one where the average citizen is an illiterate, tobacco-chewing moonshiner whose older sister is also his mother.

The novel has enjoyed so many editions that it’s difficult to total the sales, though in the 1920s Wright was said to be the best-selling American writer of all time. Shepherd’s fame was helped along by its various film versions, the best-known of which starred John Wayne. Wright died in 1944, leaving behind some nineteen books and a number of lesser efforts. Like most writers, you’d have thought he’d be forgotten by now.

But The Shepherd of the Hills got turned into a theme park, located on Branson’s famous strip. This outdoor pageant ran from 1960—about the time Branson expanded into a tourist destination—until stuttering to a lightly-attended halt in 2013. New ownership brought it back the very next year. Nothing is forever, but The Shepherd of the Hills might as well be.

The Shepherd of the Hills (film, 1941), directed by Henry Hathaway

Not much to be said for this film, at least if you are looking for a faithful rendition of Harold Bell Wright’s novel. First up: the movie was shot around Big Bear Mountain, near San Bernardino, and doesn’t look at all like the hills around Branson. (Hathaway pulled the same trick with True Grit, shot almost forty years later in Colorado. Snow-capped peaks in Oklahoma!) Saintly Aunt Mollie becomes a shrew, and the Bald Knobbers are nowhere to be found. Young Matt (John Wayne) brews moonshine, and revenuers make an appearance. Wash Gibbs (Ward Bond) checks in, but only so Young Matt can fight with him. There’s no Ollie Stewart. Pete Matthews (Marc Lawrence) briefly appears, but without an explanation for his condition. Gone is the subplot about Daniel Howitt’s son, the artist. Gone even are the religious overtones. Virtues? Even though it’s 1941, the film is in technicolor, much to the benefit of a luminous, sensual Betty Field, as Sammy Lane. And Harry Carey’s performance as Howitt is gentle and sorrowful, lending the film what gravitas it can claim. Also, Hathaway manages to scare up a herd of sheep.


The Legend of the Albino Farm (2017), by Steve Yates

Yates is from Springfield, Missouri, and weaves his saga around a Springfield legend he encountered as a child, about a farm, once a model farm, that declined to the point it was overrun with thugs and libertines. It’s the refined, disciplined past versus ignorant, decadent modernity. Or: build a paradise, and the barbarians will come.

“Emerald Farm” all began with a self-made man—a working man, Frank Headley—in the 1920s. Headley established an exemplary dairy. He built a stone silo and stables. He raised fine horses and trotted them around a track. He dug a forty-acre lake and folks from Springfield came out for excursions, as well as to ride through Headley’s cave. (This last seems to be a reference to Fantastic Caverns.) Then Headley’s lungs forced him to sell out and move to Arizona.

Enter the rich Sheehy family and the beginning of decadence. They keep apart from the community and seem to think themselves superior, though they’ve never really done anything. They learn to farm but share little of Headley’s genius. The family slowly dies out, and Headley’s hard-won creation begins to seem cursed by accidents and disease. One Sheehy dies of a flesh-eating cancer.

The last Sheehy will be Hettienne, a tall, pale girl with intense blue eyes. She has visions that Yates calls fits, though these fits don’t seem to be physiological. They’re part of the family curse. Hettienne envisions Goths and bikers and other decadent folk, dancing down by the river, vandalizing the stables and the old mansion, and setting fire to all. Echoes of Faulkner here, maybe Hawthorne.

Hettienne’s visions are real, but still the curse is a self-fulfilling prophecy. One night, wandering in her sleep, she covers herself in a white, luminescent horse liniment. Her favorite uncle, James, discovers her, and to protect her from a family eager to tear her away from Emerald Farm (and maybe place her in psychiatric care), he guides her down to the creek to wash off. In the half-light, James and Hettienne make out trespassing soldiers, home from WWII, cavorting with their dates. James covers himself with white liniment, too, and the two descend on the intruders as “streaked hillbilly djinn,” crying doom. From this incident, the legend of the crazy albinos is born, and becomes a gratifying tale of evil for evangelical Springfield. The splendid old farm hurtles toward ruin.

James is the most sympathetic character in the novel, and his relationship with Hettienne the most appealing. His death, years later, takes up several moving chapters that bring out all the family at their best and worst.

And the scenes featuring James inspire some of Yates’s finest writing. Consider this sharp image: “James’s bedroom smelled of urine masked with rosewater.” How better could you describe a sick man’s room? So much misery is expressed in just eight words.

At the Catholic hospital, where officials have concluded that James’s fall from the rock silo was suicidal, and where James lies comatose, Hettienne’s maiden aunts “hunched like two pissed barn cats” at the doctor’s arrival. Have you ever been around a barn, with its half-wild cats? Again and again, Yates makes these precise comparisons, all of them a delight to read.

The downside of such rich language is that it slows the pacing. But this is a literary novel, not an overwrought thriller from Doubleday. Yates makes rather a point of this when Hettienne and her new husband, Wes, visit a local hamburger dive, and Wes snootily wonders why anyone would eat in such a place. Hettienne’s unlikely, postmodern rejoinder: “There is no truth . . . only narrative style.” Maybe so, and Yates’s lush narrative is certainly admirable, but such exchanges will make some readers root for the barbarians.

Yates gets at something, though. When I was a kid, I tagged along with my dad, an electrician, all through the Missouri counties of Texas and Wright. More than once I saw some grand enterprise go up, where some fellow from St. Louis or Chicago built a fine house, put up showy fences with a fancy gate, and hired a bulldozer to dig ponds and scrape the blackjacks off the hills. The man ran cattle, maybe a few horses, and in five years he was broke, his pastures sprouted oaks again, and the locals, who knew all along the outsider would fail, descended like vultures on the poor Chicagoan’s auction. Historically, the Ozarks is an insular region steeped in poverty. It’s fine when some good old boy strikes it rich—the original Mr. Headley. Outsiders, no matter how blameless, are asking for it. Those hicks you thought were so primitive will feast on your demise.

Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks, by Guy Howard

Unspeakable tragedy descends upon young Guy Howard, an educated, upright Iowa farmer who wants only to farm and teach school. His wife, Madge, dies from diphtheria in a year when corn prices are so low it makes more sense to use the crop for fuel. Guy must care for three young children, one of them sickly. He moves his family back in with his impoverished parents, and then his mother dies. As he walks into the little town of Chariton to wake up the undertaker, he falls to his knees in the snow, and in that moment feels the call to preach.

The following summer, he walks to the Ozarks in his one suit of clothes. Through the kindness of strangers, he reaches a settlement in south-central Missouri, the town of Mulberry in Hickory County, where there’s a school in need of a teacher. That “school” is all but abandoned, but Guy puts himself to work cleaning up the grounds, finding desks, and securing books. More formidably, he has to negotiate among stingy, ignorant, and sometimes malevolent citizens, many of whom brew moonshine and are distrustful he’s a “revenuer”. They need a school, but they need salvation even more.

The Gospel of Guy is fundamental but forgiving, and he proves himself to be a gentle, imaginative arbiter. In an era when governmental services hardly existed, Guy is a sort of social worker. He strives mightily to steer young men away from moonshine. More than once he comes to the aid of a pregnant girl with no husband. Without judgment, he takes the confession of an old woman who raised eleven children fathered by her father.

And Guy is poor. Schools pay him almost nothing and his jobs are never secure. Congregations reward him with meals and good will; once, he’s the recipient of a “chicken shower.” He can’t afford clothes or to house his two boys. Remember: Guy does his work, walking across mountain trails from church to church, during the Great Depression. Everybody’s broke.

Guy meets his new wife, Mary Louise, and they take over a Christian Church in Houston, but the Methodists and Baptists got there first. Guy crusades against saloons, putting some of them out of business, but he and Mary Louise go bankrupt and must place their three children into an orphanage.

Desolate, hungry, they walk to Branson, and at last they find a position where they can support themselves and their young family. Guy Howard discovers, with all his selflessness, that he’s a little bit famous. He begins to sell articles, and finally, he writes this book.

Though written by a preacher, Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks is not preachy. It’s a colorful, humble, realistic account of a devoted man’s attempt to live usefully among an insular, impoverished people. Perhaps no other account so intimately portrays the backwoods of the Missouri Ozarks in the 1930s, where there were few automobiles, and even radioes were rare. Moreover, it’s hard to understand the Ozarks without taking fundamentalism into account, and Guy Howard’s memoir certainly does that. Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks is a spare, frank, funny, inspiring book.


The Woods Colt, by Thames Williamson

The Woods Colt was first published in 1933. It’s a simple, fast-moving tale about a stubborn young hillbilly, Clint Morgan, a “woods colt.” Woods colt is a hill term for bastard, and the status more or less dooms Clint from the outset. He is without much schooling and has no prospects. He has one friend, a colorful story-teller named Windy Gifford, and Windy is true to the end, hiring on with the sheriff’s posse and deliberately throwing it off Clint’s trail. Clint’s tough-as-nails mother and his errant father stand by him as much as they can, but his mother is alone and poverty-stricken, while his father has a vicious, tattling wife.

Clint’s troubles begin with a two-timing girl, pretty Tillie Starbuck. She likes Clint but Ed Prather, the postmaster, would surely offer her a better life. Rapidly, callow Clint fills up with jealousy and attacks Ed in the Hokeville post office. Clint wins, but Ed successfully claims that because the fight occurred in a post office, it’s a federal crime. Clint is thrown in jail and awaits arraignment in federal court.

“He is in the littlest room you ever seen, no bigger’n some folks’ smokehouse, the hull wall made of cement, an’ bars for a door.”

Because Clint is a kind of wild animal, he reacts like one. He knows what happens to moonshiners—they rot at Leavenworth. On the way to the federal court, he grabs the marshall’s pistol, and would kill him if he were sophisticated enough to figure out the safety. Only a few days later, he does kill a federal man, and then the posses descend in a breathless, you’ll-never-take-me-alive sort of chase. Remarkably, a fourteen-year-old girl, Nance Darby, comes to Clint’s aid, and Nance proves true.

Remarkably, also, Tillie and her uppity father get their come-uppance in a vivid, terrible scene that is barely short of a lynching. Subtly, Williamson shows that Tillie is probably innocent, while Clint, thirsting for revenge and unquestionably a victim, is in the wrong.

Williams wrote his story in dialect you’d have a hard time encountering anymore. He explains his method in his dedication: “For Vance Randolph, because he is the acknowledged authority on Ozark dialect, because we traveled them thar hills together, and because he twice went over this story in the painstaking effort to make it regionally perfect.”

I spent a lot of my childhood in Texas and Wright counties, and back then you could still encounter the “Ozark dialect.” Williams is masterful with it but perhaps not “perfect.” Certainly, if there is an unimpeachable authority, it’s the famous folklorist, Vance Randolph, but I was slightly thrown off by “always.” Randolph renders it “allus,” which is how many Ozarkers pronounce always even today. Guy Howard, in Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks (1944), renders always as “allers.” Williams stays with “always.”

A quibble. The Woods Colt is a marvelous rendering of hill life in the 1930s, and a crackerjack story that ends excitingly, if ruthlessly. Unlike Harold Bell Wright in The Shepherd of the Hills, Williamson is never sentimental. In fact, in its exposition, The Woods Colt is quite modern, while The Shepherd of the Hills is stilted and overwrought. Yet Wright’s novel lives on, while Williamson’s has sunk into obscurity. Go figure.

Note: The Woods Colt was illustrated by the extraordinary woodcuts of Raymond Bishop, one of which appeared on the cover.  


Slant of Light, by Steve Wiegenstein

The subtitle of Wiegenstein’s Ozarks story is “a Novel of Utopian Dreams and Civil War,” and that’s exactly what it is. In 1851, in Leavenworth, Kansas, an army colonel’s daughter, Charlotte Sumner, falls in love with a visionary author and lecturer named James Turner. After a quick courtship, the two marry, and then Mr. Turner goes on the road again. He makes his living as a lecturer, reading from his utopian novel, Daybreak. And then a wonderful (or terrible) thing happens: a man from the Missouri Ozarks offers Turner a large piece of fertile land where he can put his cerebral notions to a real-world test. Turner names his new colony Daybreak.

Wiegenstein is a scholar of the Icarian Movement, an early communist group with origins in France, led by Étienne Cabet, who like Turner wrote a utopian novel (Voyage en Icarie) that inspired myriad followers. There were a number of such movements in the 1840s through the 1850s, and many founded their settlements on the rapidly vanishing frontier, from the Amana Colonies in Iowa to the Mormons in Utah. The Icarians were unique, or nearly so, in that they were secular, believing in the perfectability of humankind through hard work and a rigid egalitarianism. They founded a vigorous colony in Nauvoo, Illinois (after the Mormons left) and then splintered off to a long-lived settlement in southwest Iowa, and a short-lived effort in St. Louis. Wiegenstein places his settlement, not specifically Icarian, east of Cape Girardeau, in Madison County, along the St. Francis River.

Back to Charlotte. She resents being left with her father while her husband pursues his utopian dreams, and she makes the arduous trip to Daybreak with a new friend, the third major character, Adam Cabot. Adam is an intellectual Easterner and abolitionist who, like Turner, wants to direct his idealism toward practical goals. Wiegenstein hints early on that Charlotte and Adam will fall in love, but they are both highly-principled and nothing happens for a while.

With brutally hard work—pulling stumps and the like—Turner and his followers turn the land into an agricultural commune, and with some success. There’s a catch, however. You can set up your independent community, but you still need a market for what you produce. A sympathetic merchant in Fredericktown buys wheat, and the commune’s one factory operation, making rope from hemp, begins to turn a profit. Even so, Turner is forced to return to the lecture circuit for infusions of cash. It’s not a lack of work, or even of cash, that threatens the colony, however. It’s the imperfection of human beings.

For one thing, Turner has a wandering eye, and cheats on Charlotte with a pretty young French girl, impregnating her. Charlotte and Adam keep their desires more or less in check, but they are lustful all the same, and Charlotte’s outrage over her husband’s indiscretion seems somewhat hypocritical. The colony may be communal, but not when it comes to sex and marriage and child-rearing.

James Turner’s foibles don’t stop with adultery. Protecting the colony from enemies, he murders a man for the greater good, and informs on a Confederate sympathizer whose claim on Daybreak probably has legal standing.  Turner is a seriously flawed human being, posing the question whether a noble experiment can be more noble than its flawed adherents.

What if Turner had been a better man? What if Charlotte’s and his marriage had truly been a peerless model? What if Adam Cabot—the best of them all, and a true hero—had been the one in charge, rather than James Turner?

Probably, it wouldn’t have mattered, because the greatest human foible of all, war, comes to the settlement. Try as he must to keep Daybreak neutral, even spurning attempts to turn Daybreak into a stop on the Underground Railroad, Turner is Unionist. Federal troops are everywhere. But so are Confederate irregulars, and Daybreak itself becomes a battlefield. Afterwards, the settlement remains, but the reader wonders whether it can survive. Wiegenstein addresses that question in a sequel, This Old World.

Steve Wiegenstein runs a cogent website concerning what might be called the cultural life of the Ozarks, at http://www.stevewiegenstein.com/home. He is also an accomplished,  ironic speaker, and you can probably bring him in to talk about all things Ozarks—and his own fine books.