QUEEN OF THE HILLBILLIES: Writings of May Kennedy McCord, edited by Patti McCord and Kristine Sutliff

If you should come down with shingles, kill a black chicken and drain its blood. Then lie down on some newspapers (to soak up the mess) and find someone to pour the blood over your suppurations. Works every time.

That’s nonsense, of course, but here’s some folk wisdom that isn’t: Plant your corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. This piece of Ozarks lore, also Native American lore, is quite correct. For Midwestern farmers, the rule-of-thumb time to plant corn is April 15, but often that’s a mite early. Oaks are about the last trees to bud out in the spring, and the ground and the air will have warmed  by then. So the best time to plant corn truly is whenever oak leaves reveal themselves.

May Kennedy McCord wrote about all kinds of Ozarks superstitions in her long-running columns, mostly in Springfield, Missouri papers, but superstitions were only one of her subjects. The editors ably segment her columns and fugitive pieces into a number of categories: “Crime and the Law;” “Ghost Stories,”  which McCord didn’t put much stock in; “Politics and Religion,”  which, folksy as it is, contains a vivid and penetrating description of Penecostalism; “Death and Burial;” “Music of the Ozarks,”  featuring the lyrics to songs McCord collected and sang; “Critters in the Hills;” “Superstitions and Granny Cures;” and “Time for School,” in which McCord described the fascinating “blab schools.” These were schools where all learning was through recitation. They were also called “loud schools.”

Rather as Harold Bell Wright did, McCord celebrated the Old Ozarks as an Arcadian paradise:

“There are no words to describe my feelings as I go over these still, dark, cool, woodsy little paths—smelling of cedar and moss and the loamy earth.”

She fiercely defended her idea of the true Ozarks of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and disliked it when that heritage was, in her view, corrupted by outside influences. Thomas Hart Benton came from Neosho, Missouri, but his undulating style of painting irritated McCord as a distortion of Ozarkers as they actually were. This muleheaded argument was seconded by many of McCord’s loyal readers—who wrote constantly to McCord on all manner of things, much enriching her columns.

Time and again, the Queen tried to get a handle on the notion of “hillbilly,” a vexed term even in the 1930s. It was all right for an Ozarker to call himself a hillbilly, but watch out if you were an outsider. “We are a peculiar people in the Ozarks,” she wrote. “This storied land which is a Pandora’s box of strange tales, unfathomable superstitions, shouldering hatreds, fierce loyalties, simple religions and unshakable faiths.”

McCord was born in Carthage, Missouri in 1880. Her parents were teachers and not truly hillfolk, nor were they poor. Nonetheless, hardships visited the family; McCord’s father died when she was twelve. Galena became McCord’s hometown, the place where her infinite knowledge of the hills came from. She had a good singing voice and often sang ballads out of the hills, accompanying herself on the guitar. Like Vance Randolph, she collected ballads, seeking out lonely oldtimers to play and sing with them. When visitors came to McCord’s house, they’d be entertained with song—and a lot of good food.

Her husband’s job forced McCord to move from her beloved Galena, on the pristine James River, to the big city of Springfield. However, the move made the Queen’s career. Though she wrote for other publications and had a radio show in St. Louis, her home base was the Springfield NEWS AND LEADER with a column called “Ozarks Heartbeats.” It ran from the 1920s into the war years.

Properly for a good Ozarks raconteur. McCord was often funny. Many times, it was guffaw humor, though even then it was sly, an inescapable part of her style. Sometimes, it was wonderfully wry, as when she recounted the final moments of outlaw Alf Bolin, who, with the co-operation of law enforcement, was done in by his wife:

“After dinner, as he leaned over the fireplace to light his pipe, the other guest knocked him in the head with the poker. She herself dragged him to a lean-to room and cut off his head from his body. Women used to do a lot for ‘their men,’ didn’t they?”

Almost as often as she was funny, McCord was poignant:

“Crazy people were about all we used jails for—poor souls. We had so little in the way of treatment then for mental cases. We did nothing but chain them and take them over hard roads in rough bumpy wagons, and they were wild, poor things, when after about three hard days the sheriff and other men got them to the state institution. These things break my heart yet!”

. Colleagues Otto Rayburn and Vance Randoph, as well as personages far removed from the region such as Pete Seeger and Carl Sandburg, celebrated McCord for her colorful homages to Ozarks culture, being lost even in McCord’s time. However, her writings have been pretty much forgotten. That’s partly because McCord didn’t take herself all that seriously and never wrote a book. Hopefully, Queen of the Hillbillies will go a ways to restore McCord to her proper place in Ozarks history and lore. 

https://blogs.wp.missouristate.edu/elder-mountain/2022/08/22/book-review-queen-of-the-hillbillies-writings-of-may-kennedy-mccord/

Field Trip (2022), by James Fowler

Fowler, a literature professor at the University of Central Arkansas, Conway, sets his stories in the mid-South of Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. The title story is a road story featuring a bright twelve-year-old named Reed, who, because his mom and dad have split up, and because he’s physically threatened at school, steals his dad’s car and heads north. Reed wants some attention. He wants his distracted father to talk to him. He’d never get away with his adventure—there’s a comic almost-encounter with a state trooper in Arkansas—but for the quick thinking of Raylene, a dauntless young ne’er-do-well who pretends to be Reed’s mother. The two sally forth into Missouri, both of them straightening things out a little, with Reed getting the parenting he yearns for, and Raylene finding someone to mother.

Reed’s a middle-class kid and mostly the ordinary middle-class is Fowler’s subject. But “the ordinary is exhausting when really looked into,” as the character in “Undertow” notes. After two miscarriages, she’s having a hard time finding the sanity zone. Her husband worries she’s suicidal. Drifting through her day, listless but attentive to news stories of child abductions, she at last finds herself on a quiet beach. Like an angel of mercy, a lost child wanders her way, and it’s surprising, Fowler seems to argue, how deeply compassion is imprinted in the consciousness even of a disassociated, profoundly depressed woman.  

There are thirteen stories in Fowler’s collection, gathered from years of work. Several portray how ordinary people—a factory worker, in “Flight,” and an up-and-coming family, in “Season of the Witch”—dealt with the Great Recession, when jobs disappeared, stores boarded up, and the American Dream turned into a sullen nightmare.

One story, “The Town,” is not a story in the conventional sense, but the satirical account of a high school project to model a town. “Our town” is as middle class as Thornton Wilder, but it’s not utopia and eventually gets corrupted by small-mindedness, or smug smalltownedness, and can only be purified with fire. Out of fire, the boosterish narrator claims, will come something better, but that better thing seems a lot like the old thing, sharply constricted by the Chamber of Commerce.

Fowler’s darkest story, and most disturbing critique of the middle class, is “Curb Appeal,” in which a young man, Trent, embraces a sort of madness after his father is sent to prison for embezzlement and his mother runs off with a rich guy. As a science experiment, Trent gradually turns his parents’ fancy house into an indoor garden, burning up wood work and knocking out skylights to allow his jungle to grow. Still, he’s careful to maintain the house’s presentation to the street, so no one will interfere. Though Trent doesn’t seem angry, his indoor garden is an almost nihilistic repudiation of his parents’ hyypocisy. He’s an accelerant to the ruin, a mad scientist tooling up for the apocalypse.

To my mind, Fowler’s most perfectly formed story is “Natchez,” featuring a middle-class woman, Peggy, married to a kindly perfectionist, an engineer who plans their activities in minute detail. Sometimes, in sheer frustration, Peggy makes alternative plans, but her husband’s plans always turn out to be more thoughtful, taking into account Peggy’s desires more than she herself would have. Peggy bargained for this very thing, but it has grown wearisome:

What kind of life did Peggy Lane Culp, never the belle of the ball, foresee with such a man? She knows she wasn’t a girl of any special talent or interest. Was it only vanity to think exciting and new things would somehow come as her due? And if she can’t call her years with Don unhappy ones, why is she gradually growing desperate?

Don and Peggy tour the antebellum homes of Natchez, a bland, middle-class thing to do. Somehow Peggy ends up on a riverboat, pushing quarters into slot machines, and misses various cues to disembark. In a beautifully-crafted ending, Peggy waves at hapless Don as the boat heads downriver—they’ll meet again, of course, but the scene shows the precariousness of settled, middle-class life, which without warning can sail away into the unknown. The story is reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s “The Compartment,” in which an American on a French train suddenly realizes he doesn’t know where he’s going, except that it won’t be good. Peggy is like that man, but there’s a wry optimism to Fowler, too. Maybe, somewhere downriver, Peggy will find her “exciting and new things,” after all. Her hope, to wring meaning out of the fearsome nothingness, is universal.

Remote Access: Small Public Libraries in Arkansas (2021), by Sabine Schmidt and Don House

My first memory of a library is from the summer of 1951, when I was four. My parents had bought a small farm south of Cabool, Missouri. The farm would hardly have supported a family in good times, but we scraped by with Dad’s earnings as an electrician.

In 1952, we sold out at auction. The famous five-year drought was well underway. Ponds dried up and cattle were so hungry they tried to eat the leaves off of oak trees—also dried up.

A gravel road ran in front of our house, and to the west it connected with what is now State Highway 181. A Texas County bookmobile parked at that corner, and I remember walking down there with my mother. The distance might have been a quarter-mile but seemed to go on forever into scary, dry country. I was so small I could hardly negotiate the steps up into the truck, but there I was greeted with rows and rows of multi-colored books.

When I learned that I could check out anything I wanted, it seemed impossible. It didn’t seem as if I should be allowed into this rare kingdom of books. The world started to open up for me.

Schmidt and House spent three years on their crusade to celebrate such magic, visiting twenty-one small libraries in all regions of Arkansas. They visited what is apparently the smallest “freestanding library” in the United States, in Norman. It’s 14’ by 12’, but packed with ideas and dedicated people. It even offers Internet access, a chief attraction deep in the Arkansas woods.

Some libraries, though certainly not large, are rather grand. For instance, there’s the sprawling Eureka Springs Library, a Carnegie building built into a stony hill and, over the years, expanding into nearby buildings to accommodate heavy use and Internet access. The Charleston library, with its stonework entryway and arches, and the expansive rooms within, seems like a poor man’s cathedral.

Most of the libraries, however, are quite modest, operating out of trailers or defunct schools, adjacent to the police station or in a row of closed stores. These seem like the last outposts of civilization for their dying towns, and the keepers of the flame are often poorly-paid part-timers or retirees, as much social workers as guardians of the book. Some are not librarians but simply good citizens, like the Chief of Police, Gary Ricker, in Greenland. Ricker engineered a pedestrian bridge between a housing complex and city services, bringing unity to disarray.

The format for each of the twenty-one chapters is always the same: Schmidt does her color photos of the libraries, inside and out, as well as representative sights or buildings around the town. She interweaves an essay packed with the history of the place: when freed slaves came to the area, or when all the timber was cut. Where the railroad used to run. The road where people uprooted by the Indian Removal Act trudged through on their forced march to Oklahoma.

House works in black and white to photograph the librarians and random customers. The subjects are uber-ordinary: old and young, proud and tired and confused. They seem poor, for the most part, and nice. Some faces are etched in sorrow. Kids yuck it up.

His essays are more impressionistic than Schmidt’s. He tells of the people he meets, such as an addled woman trying to hitchhike some sixty miles to Fayetteville, or the old, old woman who knows everything, such as why and where the pharmacist hanged himself. Sometimes, Schmidt lifts his voice in outrage, as when he observes a driver  who deliberately swerves to kill a dog.

Altogether, the reader is left with a vivid portrait not only of these libraries, but the places where they reside. And with something else not so easily defined. In his fine introduction, Robert Cochran compares the photographers’ work to that of James Agee and Margaret Bourke-White, who documented the Depression-era South with their haunting prose and photographs, respectively. Schmidt and House’s people are joyous as well as sorrowful, and hunger doesn’t seem to be a problem, but these rural patrons are hanging on to life in bad times, and the libraries, and the tireless librarians, offer hope and respite for besieged souls.

To take another view, these little libraries are often filled with junk. They operate on small book budgets and tend to buy romances and bestsellers. There are often more DVDs than books because, if there is no Internet in your house, you can’t stream anything. Even if Internet is available, it’s expensive. Of course, nowadays, public libraries are only somewhat about books. They’re gathering places. Focal points.

And I’m confident—I’m thinking now of a small library I’m well-acquainted with, the Dade County Library in Greenfield, Missouri—that all of these libraries provide serendipity. That matters a lot.

I remember eighth grade in Mountain Grove, where we read John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” bound into the textbook. For convenience, I checked out the standalone copy from the public library, and the teacher said, “Does your mother know you’re reading this?”

As if my mother would have cared.

It seems the school version had been censored, cutting out details about the death of one colt, the delivery of another going all wrong as the mare dies. That realism is probably why I’ve always loved Steinbeck, but anyhow obtaining the true version of the story from the public library alerted me to the fact there are moralists everywhere, trying to keep the truth from you, trying to decide what you should see or read. That little eighth grade event made me a lifelong enemy of censorship, and began to turn me into a writer.

REMOTE ACCESS is a fine book. With so many beautiful photographs, it’s hard to imagine how Arkansas can sell it, an art book, for $45. Buy it, and visit these wonderful little libraries one at a time, as you might read a story in a collection. You’ll end up planning some road trips.

Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks, by Thomas Michael Kersen (2021)

Kersen, who spent much of his childhood in the Arkansas Ozarks, examines the “liminal” quality of life there. Here’s a definition of liminal I grabbed off the Internet: “1. relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process. 2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” We all know that the Ozarks are much like the rest of America, or at least the rest of rural America. But their relative isolation, their difficult geography, have also turned them into an experimental place, where alternative lifestyles, cults, and general kookiness can find a place to breathe. Where misfits fit.

Kersen has a good time portraying Eureka Springs, headquarters for that first America Firster and wannabe Nazi, Gerald L. K. Smith, but it’s a looney sort of town that hosts both an annual UFO convention and a passion play, and it appears to be where all the hippies went. Kersen’s solid history of the town shows it to be zany from the start, and most of all, how changeable it has been, always on the threshold of becoming something else.

The founding myths of the Ozarks are captured, and invented, by the long-running cartoon strip, L’l Abner. The strip itself is long gone, but in its day was as powerful as any novel or movie. L’l Abner himself was a trickster, a wise buffoon—the foolish thing that confounds the wise. The strip was always almost-ribald and almost out-of-bounds, but since it was ostensibly about hillbillies (and space aliens) mainstream America could just chuckle and move on.

Here’s where Kersen introduces the delightful, penetrating notion of anemoia. Anemoia “means being nostalgic for an imagined past.” That’s L’l Abner in a nutshell, as well The Shepherd of the Hills.

Kersen is perhaps at his most engaging in discussions of back-to-the-land efforts of the 1970s and 1980s in both Missouri and Arkansas. His own family moved from Texas to a sort of homestead near Fallsville, Arkansas—deep inside one of Arkansas’s wildest areas. His family had it hard at first, then did a little better, and that would seem to encapsulate most back-to-the-land experiments, though some did succeed and survive to this day. Several characteristics stand out: 1) back-to-the-land was a hard thing to do alone, so you needed an appetite for communal living (communitas); 2) the popular conception of communal living as Bacchanalia is silly, because of how physically hard such a life is; and 3) old-time Ozarkers (unlike conservative retirees from Chicago) will help you, because they know instinctively what you are experiencing for the first time.

Kersen rounds out his nine essays with an affectionate, somewhat bemused account of Ozarks rock groups such as the Dan Blocker Singers, Black Oak Arkansas, and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Black Oak and OMD produced a liminal sort of music—evolved from folk, not quite rockabilly, not exactly mainstream rock. He brings some personal encounters to this history and ties it into his accounts of communal living; music was a relief valve, and sometimes brought in much-needed cash.

Where Misfits Fit takes the reader into the 21st Century in its understanding of the liminal Ozarks. Because it remains such an imaginary place, one is left wondering what will happen next there. Perhaps it will turn out that white supremacists are imaginary, and that flying saucers and little green men really do exist.

Check it out: https://www.amazon.com/Where-Misfits-Fit-Counterculture-Influence/dp/1496835433/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=where+misfits+fit&qid=1633445889&sr=8-1

A Common Person and Other Stories, by R. M. Kinder (2021)

Kinder’s edgy title story is about a 76-year old woman, Maggie, who posts on Facebook that “maybe someone will shoot him before he takes office”—meaning Trump, of course, in 2016. Immediately, Maggie thinks better of the post and deletes it, but it seems nothing ever truly disappears from the amorphous Internet. Sure enough, men in suits come calling, and Maggie is detained overnight.

The episode is quietly terrifying but the government people are all polite and Maggie is released in the morning. The story might end there as a cautionary tale against the intrusive state, but it seems that the polite government people have seized Maggie’s guns. Because she didn’t really do anything subversive, she demands them back, beginning a struggle that might take the rest of her life.

Maggie is clearly a bit daft—but common, no question. And maybe normal in these Kafkaesque  times, in which a visit from the FBI seems rather like having your credit card denied or being threatened by a bill collector. Just part of everyday life.

Common does seem the same as normal in “Everyday Sky,” in which a lonely immigrant boy, Milosh, befriends a lonely hound dog. Not an abused dog, just a neglected one, rather like Milosh himself. Kinder isn’t afraid of happy endings, though Milosh has to work pretty hard for his. Kinder likes dogs, and “Brute” is really a reprise of “Everyday Sky” that also ends happily, though the protagonist is a complicated fellow with an elaborate scheme to rescue his own unwanted dog. A word about Kinder’s dogs, which must appear in at least half of these stories: they are characters, just as dogs are kind of like people in real life.

A COMMON PERSON is real life, that’s the thing. Real people live in her Missouri neighborhoods, which aren’t fancy or affluent but not poor or deprived, either. The houses were built a while ago and have had more than one set of occupants. Families are not exactly nuclear but take a wobbly aim in that direction. It’s the American Dream with some subtractions, but hanging on.

If people come to resemble their names, as Faulkner said, then maybe another common denominator of Kinder’s stories is kindness. There’s cruelty here, as shown by the boyfriend of  a girl who needs an abortion, in “Tradition.” But the girl’s sweetness and acknowledgement of reality—the kindness she shows her worthless boyfriend, the kindness of everyone besides the boyfriend—leaves the reader thinking the girl will be all right.

The saddest of Kinder’s stories may be “The Stuff of Ballads,” about a woman who’s hopelessly in love with an itinerant banjo player. He loves her, too, but not as much as his life on the road. Other lovers enter the picture, move on, and the woman loses some of her style, moves on herself, conquers alcoholism and even cancer. But, as Kinder puts it: “Like it or not, she was wholesome and honest and true.” She finds a qualified happiness in late life. It’s a happy ending shot through with regrets—but happy enough, given the kindness and good wishes of everyone around her. What a common person, being reasonable, might reasonably expect.

A COMMON PERSON is the 13th Richard Sullivan Prize winner for short fiction. The series began in 1996 and is published by the University of Notre Dame. The award is more rigorous than some of its kind in that writers must have published at least one other collection of stories in order to qualify. A COMMON PERSON is Kinder’s third collection; she’s also published two novels, AN ABSOLUTE GENTLEMAN and THE UNIVERSE PLAYING STRINGS.

SCATTERED LIGHTS, by Steve Wiegenstein (2020)

My first girlfriend was an Adventist who implored me to take a short course on the history of the faith. Nothing remarkable about that, other than how desperately shy I was, and how I almost got myself married at age 19. (Instead, I was drafted.) Anyhow, I explored the Adventists a little more and discovered how they developed out of a group called the Millerites, who gathered on a mountain in Massachusetts in 1844 to await the return of Jesus. When he failed to arrive, the event came to be known as the “Great Disappointment.”

Which is my long winded way of saying that I identified with Wiegenstein’s wonderful story, “Signs and Wonders,” in which a hapless, though likable couple join a small town crank’s pilgrimage to an Ozarks campground, where they await the Rapture. Typically, Wiegenstein avoids satire here; satire would be too easy for such a subtle writer. His characters are sad, but you sympathize with the two misfits who have somehow found love with their only possible matches.

In a kindred story that bookends the collection, “The End of the World,” Larry “works at the Dixie Food Mart,” where he runs the produce department with great pride. He befriends a co-worker, a pretty high school girl named Tami, against a co-worker who’s a lout, and for the blink of an eye you think there might be some hope for loveless Larry. But Larry is a fundamentalist who can’t resist handing out tracts, which becomes so much of a public nuisance he nearly loses his job. The end of the world isn’t really at hand, but it seems to be for Larry, and it would greatly improve things for him. Again, Wiegenstein doesn’t condemn Larry; his handing out tracts is similar, really, to an overly-zealous environmentalist handing out an entirely different kind of literature. The point isn’t Larry’s hopeless religion. Rather, it’s his hopeless life, for which the tracts are only a symptom.

Other stories range widely. There’s “The Fair,” a fine, ironic tale of a carnival worker, by most any measurement a loser, who despite himself becomes a hero, and even finds a nice girl to settle down with, though whether he’ll manage it is another question. “Why Miss Elizabeth Never Joined the Shakespeare Club” treats those small-town ladies’ clubs that grew up late in the 19th Century to stake their thin claims on culture. Somehow they still survive, though in this story they teeter on complete irrelevance.

Weigenstein takes an otherworldly turn in “Unexplained Aerial Phenomena,” about a young academic’s exploration of Ozarks UFOs, and, in a bit of a surprise, he explores the dating world in the comic “The Trouble with Women,” which might as well be about hand-to-hand combat.

Lovely collection, and with nary a miss. Everything is set in the south-central Ozarks, though the stories are perfectly universal. That is, if Eudora Welty and William Faulkner are universal.

After you’ve read this collection, you might want to try Wiegenstein’s highly entertaining historical novels, also set in southeastern Missouri. They follow the travails of a utopian colony from the Civil War onward:  Slant of Light (2012), This Old World (2014), and The Language of Trees (2017).  

ELDER MOUNTAIN: A Journal of Ozarks Studies, Issue 10: (2020), edited by Phillip Howerton

Here’s the tenth issue of Elder Mountain, out of Missouri State University in West Plains, and it’s a big one at 288 pages. Let’s give a nod first to the freshest voice: Faith Collins in “The Future of Beekeeping in the Missouri Ozarks,” a true, passionate tale of woe about bees dying from the verroa mite, lack of forage, and pesticides.  Ozarks ecology turns out to be a major theme of the issue. To give another example, there’s Denise Henderson Vaughn’s well-researched account, “The West Plains Sewage Lagoon Drama, 1978,” recounting the perils of placing sewage treatment plants above karst topography.

This double issue contains fiction by Steve Weigenstein (who also has a story collection coming out from Cornerpost Press, SCATTERED LIGHTS), Steve Yates (an excerpt from his novel, THE LAKES OF SOUTHERN HOLLOW), me, and a writer I was unfamiliar with, Matt McGowan. His wry “Sucker Flats” portrays meth users as zombies in a peculiar, decadent, irresistible setting: the abandoned lead mines south of Pittsburgh, Kansas, west of Webb City, Missouri.

There’s a great deal of poetry, from C. D. Albin (the journal’s founder), Susan Powell, Robert Lee Mahon, Douglas Stevens, Mark Spitzer, Gerry Sloan, Amy Wright Vollmar, and Paulette Guerin. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I had two favorites: Mahon with his precise “Cleaning Bluegill,” and his more philosophical, “The Altar,” about cleaning a catfish. I also loved the versatile Mark Spitzer’s “Wampus Conundrum” a lively, tongue-in-cheek indictment of how the poor bobcat shows up, stuffed, in every curio shop and yard sale.

Not least, Molly Bass Rector interviews Missouri’s poet-laureate, Karen Craigo, who says, “Every poem is sort of a little argument for a better way to think and be.” Nice thought. Maybe I’m old enough now to act on it.

Plenty of scholarship here: Charity Gibson’s unflinching treatment of the Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard case, which she ties into Ozarks myths both of the nurturing and the fallen mother; Kimberly D. Harper’s entertaining account of how the film Jesse James was made (partially) in Pineville;  and a terrific Civil War piece, “Memories of the Old Cannon Trail,” from Jim Vandergriff.

You can’t assemble writing about the Ozarks without lamenting how it used to be: two short essays by Jim Hamilton, “The Last of the Good Ol’ Days” and “Turn Right at Mohawk”;  and Virginia Howerton’s tender tribute to a neighbor,  “Evenings with Betty Dine.”

Steve Wiegenstein’s wonderful essay, “The Lure of the Ozarks: What’s the Bait, and Who’s the Fish?” references nostalgia, escape to Shangri-La (or Acadia), natural beauty, exploitation of cheap labor, mining, timber extraction, racism, and tourism in an eloquent attempt to define the region. A definition proves elusive, but no one could have come closer.

Finally, there are eight book reviews here, inviting you to keep exploring.

You can buy ELDER MOUNTAIN at

https://www.amazon.com/Elder-Mountain-Issue-Phillip-Howerton/dp/0578766450/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=elder+mountain&qid=1602497737&sr=8-2

Ozarks RFD: Selected Essays, 2010-2015 (2020), by Jim Hamilton, and Hard Road Toward Home (2016), by C.D. Albin

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.

https://www.amazon.com/Ozarks-RFD-Selected-Essays-2010/dp/0578641453/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3USSYHEG2GJDJ&dchild=1&keywords=ozarks+rfd&qid=1588952551&s=books&sprefix=Ozarks+%2Cstripbooks%2C252&sr=1-1

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.

https://www.amazon.com/Hard-Toward-Home-C-D-Albin/dp/1941209343/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=hard+toward+home&qid=1588952659&s=books&sr=1-1

My Trip to Mars the Moon and Venus (1956), by Buck Nelson

Buck Nelson, a bachelor sawmill operator and farmer, lived near the small town of Mountain View, Missouri. His strange little book drew quite a lot of attention locally and with what might be called the UFO community. Nelson spoke at flying saucer conventions (to people who called themselves “saucerians.”) Back then, many thought flying saucers were real. The beauty of such convictions is that you can’t prove them right or wrong, at least not entirely. All the facts may be wrong, but the conviction remains.

Buck’s story was transcribed by a compatriot, Fanny Lowery, and he describes an extraterrestrial friend, Bucky, who’s like your average human. Buck’s dog, Ted, accompanied Buck on his travels. There’s a nice photo of Ted, as if the dog’s existence proves the travels.

The basic storyline is that a flying saucer lands in Buck’s pasture now and again, and he journeys by some sort of magnetic force to Mars, Earth’s moon, and Venus. Buck’s details about these places are skimpy and wouldn’t have passed muster even in the 1950s. They seem to be derived from Edgar Rice Burroughs, various magazines, and the Bible. Of course, this was long before we landed on the moon, explored Mars with any number of robotic missions, and figured out that Venus is a gaseous hell.

From his narrative, Buck seems sincere, if a little daft. Lots of people thought he was crazy, and he tells us that his old age pension was taken away exactly for that reason—which doesn’t seem  like a reason. The trouble with Nelson’s little book isn’t that it’s about flying saucers, but that it’s so lacking in detail.

But you can read it for its quirky charm. You’ll learn how to build a flying saucer detector, which you might want to hang from your bedroom ceiling, in case they come at night.

https://www.amazon.com/My-Trip-Mars-Moon-Venus/dp/1724429051/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=my+trip+to+Mars+the+Moon+and+Venus&qid=1583086684&sr=8-2

Dry County (2018), by Jake Hinkson

Reverend Richard Weatherford is the well-regarded pastor of a Baptist church in Stock, Arkansas, somewhere north of Little Rock and Conway. Richard is married to Penny, mother of five, insistently “not a feminist” and the nearest to a sympathetic character that Hinkson draws, though in the end she’s as much a Machiavellian as her husband.

Their marriage is a sexless, antiseptic sham, though both partners take church work seriously, and both are extremely conscious of their public roles. Because it’s expected of them, they’re good parents.

It seems Richard had a dalliance some time ago, with a dreamy college dropout named Gary Doane. An affair with a woman would be bad enough, but a homosexual affair, in a conservative small town, is potentially ruinous. Gary now wants to be paid off for his silence—because, ironically, he has a girlfriend, and wants to begin life with her in some other town.

Richard has no idea where to find the money. But he knows he has to, and that he has to do it off the books. It’s an election year. To the bafflement of outsiders, many counties in Arkansas are dry, but there’s a proposal on the ballot to turn Richard’s county wet. Richard shakes down a young proponent of  the wet position, Brian Harten, by claiming he, Richard, will switch his support from dry to wet. That is, if Brian can come up with $30,000.

The shakedown results in a crime which in turn leads to the involvement of the closest thing Stock has to a criminal underclass. And that leads to murder—in the church foyer, the night before Easter.

By this time, the reader has lost all sympathy for Richard, and marvels at his coldbloodedness, his cunning, his tendency to justify his wicked actions with an arid, rationalizing philosophy.

Dry County is not really an Ozarks story, which is not to say that it’s unbelievable. It’s just that Stock’s citizens could be from Nebraska or South Carolina. This was also true of the young losers in Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red, set one hundred miles northeast of  Dry County, in Missouri (https://downalongthepiney.com/2018/03/). Either there’s no longer anything to distinguish the Ozarks from other regions, or Hinkson is expressing a sort of contempt for his contemptible characters by placing them in Arkansas.

Not to mention a contempt for Baptist preachers, because Richard is no Arthur Dimmesdale. There’s nothing noble in his fall. He doesn’t even fall. He’s a hypocrite without one redeeming virtue. Hypocrite may be too generous. Richard’s a sociopath.

Just about the only book-length fiction set in the Ozarks and published commercially is crime fiction. You’ve got to wonder whether a Donald Harrington or a Doug Jones could find their way in these days of declining readerships.

Hinkson uses every trick in the book to enhance the readability of his garish tale: a punchy style that’s mostly dialogue; a shifting point of view, but always in first-person; and a trendy, present-tense narration. The story simply zips along, and comes to a clever, rousing finish. And there’s a twist that reminds one of the Woody Allen movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors. If you like noirish crime fiction, Dry County ought to do.