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.


The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton

The moonflower vine is a type of morning glory, and can grow as wild and invasively as your common backyard morning glory. Really, its prevalence is tropical. I lived for some time in Florida, and probably saw them without knowing it, but in the Midwest the moonflower’s cultivation is less common and it can be a hard plant to propagate. Since it blooms only at night, and often, only in the fall, it’s easy to assign to it an effervescence, a sense of fleeting beauty.

The Moonflower Vine, however, is a realistic, rather than a flowery, representation of country life in the early 20th Century. Carleton was born in Holden, Missouri, just east of Kansas City, and her novel is set in small towns farther east still, at the northern edge of the Ozarks. She portrays the poor-but-upright Methodists, Matthew and Callie Soames, and their four daughters: Jessica, Leonie, Mary Jo, and Mathy.

Carleton gives each character a separate, third-person narrative except for Mary Jo, who begins the novel with her first-person account of a family gathering at the time of the Korean War. Mary Jo is the character who went off to New York for a professional career. She stands in for Carleton, the writer, herself.

Mary Jo soon flashes back to the story of wayward Jessica’s inscrutable romance with Tom Purdy, an illiterate, humble farmboy from southern Missouri—a hillbilly. The two run off to become tenant farmers in western Kansas, and this long sequence may be the novel’s most compelling, the pastoral tragedy, the sense of how cruel farm life can be, rising to the level of Willa Cather.

Carleton then relates the stories of Matthew, Mathy, Leonie, and Callie, each character appealing and flawed. Matthew begins life as poor as the unfortunate Tom Purdy but strives desperately to rise through education. Rise he does, but only to the level of principal in a rural school, which pays so little that he must continue to farm. Matthew craves high culture but can never attain it. He’s limited, though never done in, by his lust for pretty high school seniors, with whom he shares poetry and kisses. He contemplates running away with them in the pursuit of a perfect, cultural life. These romances are mere puppy love but they diminish and humiliate Matthew, because the young women all know better; he is their dalliance with high culture.          Matthew embodies Carleton’s central argument: even as you lay claim to the high moral ground, it crumbles from the weight of your imperfections. Put another way: Methodism is boring.

Mathy is the wild girl, who runs after a recurring rogue character, Ed Inwood. As a student, Ed is the bane of Matthew’s existence, asking disconcerting questions about the meaning of life that Matthew, advocate of truth and beauty, can’t answer. Ed becomes a barnstormer and flies off with reckless Mathy, and again the result is tragic. After Mathy dies, Leonie, the daughter with a level head, falls for him, too. By then Ed has begun to understand his limitations and Carleton rounds him out nicely, giving him a tragic turn and a dollop of redemption.

Finally, in her short last section, Carleton presents Callie, a strong, moral, illiterate farm woman whose one dalliance results in her pregnancy with Mathy, a revelation that makes the reader reflect upon the entire story. You can attend church regularly and espouse high principles, but your humanity will stubbornly assert itself. Mostly, this happens through the yearning to be loved. Love isn’t predictable or convenient; in fact, it’s embarrassing, and sometimes, it ruins you.

The Moonflower Vine, first published in 1962 and a bestseller, was Carleton’s only novel. It has been dusted off a number of times as a “forgotten classic,” and perhaps it is a classic, though it doesn’t rank with To Kill a Mockingbird or My Antonia. It’s a superb example of what used to be called “women’s fiction.” The style is lyrical yet commonplace, always ironic but always compassionate. The novel captures with sharp detail a lost way of life that anyone who grew up in the country will recognize, but never rhapsodizes over “the land.” Carleton describes canning vegetables or church socials from the perspective of experience, and her country characters all long to escape. Still, her novel fills you up with nostalgia. Like the moonflower vine, Carleton’s novel is a pretty thing that seems to disappear even as you are looking at it, portraying a time and place you’d never be able to find.