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.