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.