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.