Jim Hamilton published these short essays, 109 of them, in small town newspapers such as the Buffalo Reflex and the Bolivar Herald Free-Press, where he was the editor.
Hamilton lovingly describes fishing on the Pomme de Terre River before it was dammed, folding in memories of his hard-working father. He describes beagles, who apparently never stop howling; how comfortable overalls are; and the delight an old man takes in TV Westerns, particularly Rawhide. Though he’s never political, he movingly describes sitting in a classroom when he learned of the Kennedy assassination, an experience shared by many school children in 1963.
In one of his more extraordinary pieces, Hamilton writes of those chatty, often unpaid “community correspondents” in Marshfield, Elkland, Lebanon, Phillipsburg, etc. You know: so-and-so is back from Hawaii, and Johnny Roebuck just got through basic training, and the daffodils are particulary bright in the cemetery this year, and Rev. Cooke turned in a wonderful sermon last Sunday on the cheerful giver. Hamilton knows all these folks—unsung heroes, indeed.
Hamilton and his kid brother grew up on a succession of little farms, and most of the time they kept dairy cattle. Milking cows before you went to school was simply part of a farm kid’s daily routine. Used to be, the profusion of little dairies—relying on pasture—distinguished the Ozarks from Kansas or even northern Missouri, where an economy based on row-crops makes more sense.
There are many fewer dairies now, of course, and a lot of small towns are essentially ghost towns. Hamilton doesn’t dwell on this decline, or even recognize it. He’s a good-humored man, an optimist. Even when dealing with personal tragedies, such as his daughter’s death, he tries to remain positive. Without proselytzing, he leans on his faith.
Still, he’s never sentimental or cloying—often the flaw of collections such as this one.
Though Hamilton is no humorist, he can be amusing, as in the pride he takes in the Hamilton Melt, a sandwich named after him. You can only get one at the Maple Street Grill in Buffalo.
Toward the end of his collection, Hamilton offers up a fine, Will Rogers-like meditation on those collections of nuts and screws and “bent nails” many of us keep in coffee cans and the like. One day you might need just the right screw, just the right clamp, and you won’t have to make a trip to the hardware. This little piece, “A Mind Like a Bucket of Bolts,” is a metaphor for how Hamilton thinks, he says. One person puts a label on everything, and proceeds logically from point A to point B. But thoughts slosh about in Hamilton’s brain, and thus his highly varied collection.
Hamilton’s musings are gentle and universal. Often, they are wise.
Hard Road Toward Home (2016), by C.D. Albin
Albin, a professor at Missouri State University—West Plains, won the prestigious Press 53 contest with this collection, full of tough, sad, often woebegone people mostly in northern Arkansas.
The title story concerns Lid McKee, a laid-off shoe factory worker who’s trying to make a living as a logger, but it’s rough work and, at 56, he’s really too old. Lid’s worst problem, however, is his angry son, Reed, who’s been in and out of trouble and likely will be heading off to prison for his meth production. The despair Lid feels over his tough life and his hopeless son is imbued with Albin’s compassion, but it’s also a sort of proletarian portrait of generational decline in a region full of poorly-educated people who can’t find work.
Several of Albin’s stories are about fathers and sons. In “Punch List,” a contractor fires his son, and years later, his grandson, also, for defective work, but then he begins to accept that the defect isn’t really in their work, but himself. In “Four Fine Horses,” the reader sees the father/son relationship from the son’s point of view: the sensitive son, the tyrant father, moving toward an imperfect reconciliation.
In “At Wood’s Edge,” a young woman from St. Louis, married to a busy doctor, feels marooned in her country house. One day, she spots a listless doe at wood’s edge; the doe seems like a stand-in for herself. She tries to save the doe but there’s nothing to be done, just like there’s nothing to be done about her loneliness.
The mystery at the heart of things—the son you can’t reach, the doe appearing out of nowhere like a celestial messenger—is really what makes Albin interesting. Sometimes, Albin introduces notes of hope or redemption into that mystery. In “For You,” a brand-new husband tries to find his way with his dour wife; the key to success lies in his fledgling relationship with his mercurial stepdaughter. In what is superficially a baseball story, “Judgment Call,” a teacher, Norman Kissee, who’s working as an amateur umpire, gets drilled by a fast ball. The catcher should have blocked the pitch but didn’t. That young man is one of Norman’s students, and slowly Norman sorts it out that the judgment he made years ago, involving the young catcher’s father, still has ramifications. Was Norman wrong, long ago? Yes and no. But what he does next may begin to heal an old wound.
Albin’s morose, thoughtful tales of rural life ring true. He always stays real and never leans on cliches or melodrama. It’s hard to think of another writer quite like him.