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Priest gathers several writers who seem like old friends: Donald Harington, with a previously  unpublished, Stay More tale, “Telling Time;” William Harrison, with his hilarious take on a good old boy encountering the absurd modern world of air travel, “Tickets to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.