Lightning Bug  (1970), by Donald Harington 

Lightning Bug is the first of the thirteen Stay More (Arkansas) novels. Harington, from Little Rock, used Drakes Creek, deep in the hills east of Fayetteville, as his model. He spent his summers there as a child and fell in love with the place, his Yoknapatawpha County.

Boil it down to its essential elements, Lightning Bug is an outré love story told with gentle whimsy, using, in part, the point of a view of a precocious boy-child named Dawny. Dawny has many adventures leading to a time when he’s lost in the woods, maybe forever. Even though he’s only five, he lusts after the lightning bug, Latha Bourne, an evanescent, randy creature who is Stay More’s storekeeper and postmaster.

Lightning Bug is Latha’s novel, and Harington liked her so much he brought her back in several of the Stay More novels. In other words, her story is incomplete here, and Lightning Bug never really ends.

Latha has a lost love, Every Dill, who long ago rescued Latha from the insane asylum (she wasn’t mad; vengeful relatives committed her over their disapproval of her wild sex life, and because they wanted to keep her daughter). Harington relates Every’s rescue like a fast-paced thriller. In terms of technique, there doesn’t seem to be anything Harington can’t do, or won’t.

Every Dill holds Latha captive, rapes her, and then disappears. He returns many years later as a repentant, rueful evangelist, and the strange, tragicomic love affair resumes. We also learn quite a bit more about Every and Latha’s daughter, Sonora, and myriad minor characters.

That’s the story, more or less. Really, because Harington doesn’t like endings (the novel ends where it began, with a screen door squawking shut) and wants the reader to be completely immersed in the experience he offers, the thirteen novels could be said to be one long, episodic novel without beginning or end.

This first one is joyous–a warm summer evening in a lost time. It’s bawdy, not so far from Chaucer. It’s also learned. The characters are hillbillies, yet universal. Here’s some dialogue from a scene in which a candy salesman comes calling on Latha one hot day.

She says: “I will take a box of Baby Ruths, a box of Butterfingers, a box of Powerhouses, and a box of those round pink-goo peanut blobs, whatever you call them.”

“I couldn’t interest you this mornin in some Tootsie Rolls or some Hershey Bars?”           

“In this weather?”

“You could cool em with your sody pop there.”/;

“I’ll do that when you invent a waterproof wrapper.”

“Well, how about some orange slices? They’ll keep in any weather.”

“They’ll keep forever, too, because nobody around here eats them.”

“All right. How bout me’n you seein the pitcher show over to Jasper tonight? That’s my own car out there.”

“I thank you. But I’m already set up for tonight.”

“I bet he don’t have his own car.”

“No, but he’s got something a durn sight prettier than any car.”

 Harington is funny, sometimes with slapstick and sometimes simply because he nails a scene perfectly, inspirng your own memories of childhood or small towns or how men flirt. (Note the spot-on dialect, which Harington claimed he summoned from his childhood; at age twelve, he lost 90 percent of his hearing to meningitis.)

Lightning Bug reaches its conclusion, sort of, when Jesus comes down from the mountain to speak to Latha in her peach orchard. She’s wondering why Avery won’t make love to her before they are married.

“You don’t approve of fornication?” she asks.

Jesus says: “Oh, that word! What I was talking about . . . was unchastity and immorality without love or even affection. Marriage is in the heart anyway. I could name you several billion married couples who are committing fornication with each other as far as I’m concerned . . . let’s say I’ve spoken out against betrayal. I’m on record as opposed to uncleanness and dissipation, and I’ve taken a rather strong stand against cuckoldry, because in a triangle somebody’s liable to get hurt. But I thought I’ve made it pretty clear that my supreme commandment is ‘You better love your neighbor the same way you love yourself.’ And that means all neighbors, male and female.”

Pantheism. Free love. (Harington was a creature of the 1960s, after all.) Harington’s work exists on a higher and lower plane all at once, and it’s never reached a wide audience. Jesus’ speech is radical in a country that always, always returns to its puritanical origins. Scholars lament that Harington, who died in 2009, never found the wide readership of Twain or Vonnegut, or the classic literary status of Nabokov or Garcia-Marquez. Speaking as a fiction writer, I find his talent and knowledge to be overwhelmingly instructive, but that’s the problem. He’s a writer’s writer.

Old Home Town (1935), by Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was more famous than her mother until after World War II. She wrote biographies of Herbert Hoover and Jack London and quite a lot of fiction, as well as a number of nonfiction pieces for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. She was an unscrupulous writer, essentially a tabloid journalist who had no problem inventing details that seemed to fit with her kernels of truth, and which, in her shrewd opinion, would bring about more sales.

She was seen as a dubious character in Mansfield, Missouri, her mother’s home and sometimes Lane’s, too. In the long view of history, it was Lane’s right-wing politics that mattered, both in how she critiqued the New Deal and in how her shrill pronouncements marred her writing, but in Mansfield she was seen as an immoral, troublesome, haughty woman, a divorced, audacious feminist with no patience for the stubborn mores of small towns.

Old Home Town is a fictional portrait of Mansfield delivered as nine stories, all from the point of view of Ernestine, a small girl who turns into a teenager as the stories unfold. Many of the stories would have been better served with a third person point of view; first person forces Lane to stick Ernestine in all kinds of unlikely circumstances in order to portray crucial scenes.

In her introduction, Lane points out that she is portraying small town life around 1900, not 1935. A woman can hardly go out in public other than to market, and a buggy ride or even an unchaperoned walk with a single man will ruin a girl’s reputation. A kiss is as scandalous as intercourse—which, of course, isn’t mentionable.

Nothing concerns these young women other than clothes, and the clothes, well-described, were awfully complicated in 1900. The clothes are necessary to land a husband, and if you haven’t managed this by your early twenties, you’re an old maid. It’s hard to believe this world ever existed, but if so, it’s an effete, snobbish world that has little to do with the backbone of the community, farming.

One of the best stories is “Immoral Woman,” about Mrs. Sims, who wants to build on a new bedroom so that there’s space to turn her front room into a fancy parlor. Enterprisingly, she becomes a milliner and sets up shop where her husband works as a clerk. She’s a big success and the owner of the store is glad to have her, but then keeps her earnings to pay off the debts her husband, without informing her, ran up. Mrs. Sims rebels and leaves town, children in tow. She becomes a successful businesswoman with men working for her, and Lane has made her case, weak plot and all, against the slavery of marriage. Still, except for that fairy tale ending, “Immoral Woman” is full of details and rings true.

“Country Jake” is the tale of an awkward young hick, Ab Whitty, who pays his way through high school by cutting firewood. The town swells are endlessly contemptuous of him, except for the prettiest, most refined girl. Ab opens a store, saves his money, and puts himself in position to court his sweetheart, but then the banks fail, and everyone goes broke. Ab is undaunted and concocts a clever scheme to recoup his fortunes. It’s still not enough for the town’s snotty elite, so the hick elopes with his sweetheart to Hartville.

Old Home Town is entertaining, didactic, and not very believable. It’s as though Lane wanted to write her own version of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but didn’t have enough real knowledge to carry it off.




The men in John Mort’s collection, Down Along the Piney, are bent on doing, working through it, and putting up with it, with all the hard words and hard ways that characterize hardscrabble life in the Ozarks. These stories, stark and relentless, often center on masculinity and fathers, with men and women searching for father figures, running from them, and becoming them.

In the Ozarks of this book, there are few jobs. Industrial farming killed all the family farms, meth addiction has destroyed communities, and many people are ready to succumb to any savior they can afford, whether it be God, drugs, alcohol, or books.

In the longest story, “Top,” a lonely old soldier creates his own New Jerusalem, where people give all their worldly goods in exchange for work, food, housing, and Top’s guidance. When Top brings Birdy Blevins to live in his strange utopia, the young man finds a sudden and dangerous purpose that puts the whole community at risk.

In “Red Rock Place,” a son sends his father peacefully into death on the back of a Western fairy tale. In another story, a Mexican father brings his American-born daughter to his homeland only to discover that in Mexico, she has no home. In still other stories, PTSD profoundly affects characters, their families, and their prospects.

Characters’ focus is on the doing of things. Profoundly able as fix-it men, they conquer reluctant engines, re-chink log walls, hammer roofs, sand and plane logs. Though many can’t see a future in front of them, they can identify the problem of the moment. They get to hide or get lost in those immediacies until choices are simply gone.

Honest and sometimes hopeless, these stories offer haunting perspectives on poverty, post-military life, and American masculinity.

Reviewed by Camille-Yvette Welsch

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2017), by Caroline Fraser

Fraser’s biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (whose Little House Books occur out of Missouri but who lived most of her life in Mansfield) won the Pulitzer this year. It’s a masterful portrait. You should read it, or at least listen to it on a long trip. Fraser is a lyrical writer with a full command of the history that Wilder lived through. If you have any interest in Wilder, the Midwest, or the tough lives of pioneers, this is the book for you.

Since Prairie Fires has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere, I don’t see any merit in my reviewing the book house by house. However, a few things jumped out at me:

One is how much of the “truth” is represented in these short novels (or one long, episodic novel) aimed at children. There was debate as Wilder published how much was true, how much fabricated to fit the story, and most of the time Wilder does tell the “truth.” She insisted that she did, though “the truth” was also a marketing scheme.

Plain woman that she was, Wilder was also a good, natural writer, and could embroider scenes in search of a larger truth about childhood, family, poverty, farm life, and bad behavior. She also edited the truth when it began to seem unsavory for young children, but she didn’t lie. Every writer has a sense of that larger truth, but you don’t allow little lies to weaken it. Wilder, for the most part, didn’t.

Of course, you can’t tell the whole truth. Try it some time. What Wilder wrote was fiction.

Wilder’s somewhat infamous daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was inherently untruthful. To take just one example, she tried to work the Bloody Benders (in Kansas lore, innkeepers who lured in travelers, then robbed and killed them) into Little House on the Prairie, on the thin evidence that Pa may have visited there. Thankfully, in this instance, she wasn’t successful.

But on the subject of Lane, Fraser spends a lot of time speculating how much of the Little House books were written by Wilder, how much by Lane. Certainly, all of the recollections are Wilder’s. But Lane was much the superior writer in commercial terms, having produced a number of bestsellers. These were dishonest or at least sensational books designed to sell, and they have rightfully been forgotten. At the same time, Lane was a fine editor, and correspondence between mother and daughter reveals a solid partnership. We probably wouldn’t have the Little House books without Lane.

A second thing: Wilder was a Midwestern farm wife and very much belonged to the small town of Mansfield. She and her beloved husband, Almanzo, struggled mightily to pay the bills. Income from their hillfarm was never enough. They were hard hit by the Depression, and initially Wilder wrote to make a little money. She cut her teeth in farm magazines such as the Missouri Ruralist, and that series of small successes led to her authentic, fictional memoirs of childhood.

She didn’t write these until she was in her sixties! Those of us who grew up thinking the Little House stories were timeless classics, such as Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, probably didn’t realize that Wilder’s books were relatively new. They became over-night classics, really, in the 1940s and 1950s.

A last oddity, which Fraser diligently, delightfully records: Wilder was a rock-ribbed Republican, and like many rural folks she hated Franklin Roosevelt with all of his socialist schemes. Rose Wilder Lane was a leading adherent of the America First movement that boasted luminaries such as Charles Lindbergh and Ayn Rand. America Firsters—of which Wilder was not one, but with whom she sympathized—did not believe in foreign entanglements or in government programs to resuscitate the economy. If you failed in life, it was your fault; you should have worked harder. People on the dole were simply lazy. Lane was an isolationist, a nativist, and so, less fervently, was her mother. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Wilder and Lane would have been Trump people.

First review of DOWN ALONG THE PINEY

Mort, John (author).
Sept. 2018. 210p. Univ. of Notre Dame, paper, $20 (9780268104061).
REVIEW. First published August, 2018 (Booklist).

In his return to the short form, Vietnam veteran Mort (Soldier in Paradise, 2013) delivers 13 stories about everyday Americans looking for love, acceptance, and a place to call home. The tales are set all over North America, but as in his previous books, the Ozarks take center stage. A military veteran who goes by the name Killer and lives with a wolf on a swampy island heads into town for help with his aching teeth. A blue-collar Georgia Don Juan skips town to escape his sudden popularity after winning the lottery. An intelligent but unambitious thief flees his Missouri home to find solace on the Florida coast, where he falls in with a family making money netting mullet. And a middle-aged salesman dreams of settling in Costa Rica with his partner when he’s forced from his home in Chicago to visit his ailing father and zealous mother in Florida. Mort’s understated, funny, and deeply moving collection illustrates the entangled decisions behind escaping or embracing small-town life in the South—a world of guns, big storms, and living off the land.

— Jonathan Fullmer