The Drownt Boy: an Ozark Tale (1994), by Art Homer

Homer lays out his memoir in nine sections, alternating between present time—basically, taking a canoe trip down the Current River—and his reminiscences of a 1950s Ozarks childhood. Homer lived with his mother and father on a hilltop, subsistence farm which seems retrograde even for the 1950s. He observes that “The Depression moved into the Ozarks, liked it, and retired there after World War II, letting the rest of the country go on with the boom times.” Cattle and pigs wander on open range; in the woods, you can find packs of wild dogs.The Homers have no electricity. They don’t even have a well, taking their water from a cistern or hauling it in. They raise their own food and pull in a little cash from the senior Homer’s odd jobs. Sometimes, broke, they flee to St. Louis, depositing young Art with grandparents.

Slowly, we learn this is not a typical Ozarks family, if there is such a thing. The Homers are relatively well-educated and young Art always has books to read. There’s sometimes hunger in the home but never violence. The Homers are transplants from other regions, almost exiles. Their isolation derives largely from the father’s epilepsy, and Homer gives vivid, scary accounts of his father’s seizures. The family splits up while Homer is still a little boy, and his return to the river comes at distant intervals—in this book, almost forty years later.

Surely, no one ever offered a more closely-observed account of the Current River: its deep, blue holes, its treacherous eddies and sunken logs, not to mention the fish, the eels, the turtles. And Homer catches the flavor of campgrounds and favorite haunts, such as the drugstore in Eminence.

If you’ve never taken a canoe trip, read this book—but you won’t read it for the plot. Jacket copy for The Drownt Boy highlights a point of action, when the author’s canoe hits a submerged log in the flood-swollen river. He and his stepson, Reese, are capsized and swim to shore. It’s a dramatic, well-told scene, delivered as a cliffhanger. Otherwise, this is a leisurely book, not even a “tale,” but a combination of memoir, observations of the natural world, and learned philosophizing. From that same jacket copy the reader might be forgiven for thinking the “tale” is a haunting account of a boy who drowned, but the boy in question is simply a visitor to the river whose body is looked for and found. We don’t learn anything about him.

Homer is really an essayist. One section, called “Falling,” is just that, a meditation on the descent of hawks, the rush of water down the steep hills to the river—falling is the negation of gravity, and Homer finds freedom in it. In “Storms,” he compares his father’s epilepsy—the aberrant map of the man’s brain—to lightning.

Homers meanders like his river, but he’s often profound. Examples: “I could not know that people are seldom equal to their dreams,” and the more visceral “Nothing is more disgusting than a botched slaughtering job.” He’s perhaps most affecting in his observations of nature. Of lizards, for instance, he says: “I killed one. It lay on its back, its hands slowly curling up, its gesture less a plea than a question. ‘Why?’”

You’ll have to slow down to read The Drownt Boy, because Homer doesn’t care about narrative drive. He’s not quite a poet. He’s a philosopher.

Tomato Red (1998), by Daniel Woodrell

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got there under canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that . . . ” So begins James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, to which Tomato Red is often compared. Consider: “You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow . . . ” Woodrell’s extraordinary opening sentence goes on for a page and a paragraph, and by the end of it you know that the narrator (Sammy Barlach) is a poorly-educated, street-wise ex-con who’ll do just about anything to bust out of his hopeless, angry life.

And that’s pretty much the case with Frank Chambers, Cain’s drifter. You know both men will end up in bad trouble, and that a woman will be at the center of it.

Young Sammy hooks up with Jamalee Merridew with her tomato red hair, and her handsome, gay brother, Jason, in Venus Holler. But Sammy meets these two in a high-class house he’s tried to burglarize and he thinks they, too, are high class. That’s what they want to be. They want to be anything but the white trash they are, and Jamalee is full of schemes. These new friends aren’t much, but Sammy lusts after Jamalee, and unlike Frank Chambers, he’s not particularly bright.

When Sammy gets nowhere with Jamalee, he sleeps with Bev, the siblings’ enticing mother, who buys groceries and pays her rent with the help of various male visitors.

As Sammy says, “I always have just wanted to fit in somewhere, and this is the bunch that would have me.”

Jamalee needs to put together some cash, so she and her prettyboy brother can go to south Florida and live glamorously. In a crucial scene, she dolls up and heads to the local country club, seeking honest employment. The country club sees her as a low class whore and, more or less, escorts her off the premises. Bev knows better than to take revenge, but the kids don’t, particularly Jamalee with her white-hot, proletarian rage. In the funny, reckless scenes that follow, the trio kidnaps some pigs and runs them through the greens, destroying the golf course. Not long after, poor Jason, whom Woodrell portrays as likable and innocent, turns up dead.

Murdered by contract, perhaps? By homophobic thugs?

Bev speculates that she’s gathered enough dirt on the leading male citizens of West Table that she has some leverage to bring out the truth. Jamalee is not so sure. Sammy wants to kill somebody but he hardly know whom. And, as he memorably puts it: “You can never mount a true war of us against the rich ’cause the rich can always hire us to kill each other.”

A tough cop shows up with a payoff for this ersatz family to stay silent. They have overnight to decide, and the money sits there, a terrible temptation. It’s a lot of money, but then again, not so much. It means a market price has been determined for exactly what a white trash life is worth.

Woodrell differs radically from Cain in how he brings about his resolution, except that both writers are clever. When you read what’s happened, you may be surprised, but then you’ll realize that denouement was there all along. Suffice it to say, the ending is heart-breaking and violent.

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.