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


This Old World (2014), by Steve Wiegenstein

This Old World is the sequel to Slant of Light (https://downalongthepiney.com/2018/01/10/slant-of-light-by-steve-wiegenstein/), Wiegenstein’s portrait of a 19th Century, egalitarian community set in southeast Missouri. The Civil War is over but the little colony, called Daybreak, has been decimated by bushwhackers and can barely feed itself. The war took most of the men, and few return. As one woman observes, “Two husbands, three boys, three homes lost. That’s what life gives you, but do not try to hold onto it. You’ll just bring yourself pain.”

Charlotte Turner has become the leader by default, though she’s a born leader, versatile and practical, and probably should have been in charge all along. James Turner, the starry-eyed founder, finally returns, but he’s a ruined man. He dreams of the soldiers he saw dying, and Wiegenstein is awfully good at portraying combat with its randomness and lack of glory.

Several minor characters come into prominence and carry the story. Charley Pettibone, an Arkansas Confederate, is forced to confront the humanity of a levelheaded ex-slave, Dathan, and thereby his own humanity.  Michael Flynn is a Unionist so full of anger he can’t settle down to family life, though he tries mightily.

All three interact with the Law and Order League, a motley crew of bushwhackers, somewhere between Baldknobbers and the Ku Klux Klan, that clashes with Daybreak and with Michael Flynn. Dathan emerges as a quiet hero, always there in times of crisis, even as he stays one jump ahead of the white thugs. Briefly, the likable but troubled Pettibone joins the Law and Order League, but he has second thoughts, in part because Dathan confounds his prejudices.

Flynn works like a madman to establish a farm and raise cattle, but can’t control his anger. He courts the Frenchwoman, Marie, and out of despair, and grief for all the war has cost her, she marries Flynn. Then a plague of bad luck descends, and Flynn nearly kills the blameless Marie.

In service of Daybreak and his own conscience, Pettibone goes after the unfortunate, doomed Flynn. He becomes a sheriff’s deputy and a new leader of the settlement. Pettibone is at the core of Daybreak’s renaissance. He finds an admiring young wife to soothe his soul, and he faces the future with modest optimism.

The title This Old World  implies weariness, and certainly Charlotte, James, and Marie—central characters in Slant of Light—are weary. This Old World, however, is fast-paced and efficient, and the weariness and wreckage of war is in the end replaced with hard-won hope. It’s almost as though hope is the only thing that remains.

Movement from the first novel to the second is seamless, but it’s tempting to say that Wiegenstein’s quiet sequel surpasses his original.


The Code of the Hills: an Ozarks Mystery (2014), by Nancy Allen

The Code of the Hills is not a mystery in the whodunit sense, but a legal thriller. The novel was Springfield (MO) writer Allen’s first, and she’s had several sequels, all featuring prosecutor Elsie Arnold. A lawyer and legal scholar, Allen knows what she’s doing, and judging from her amazon entry, she has lots of readers.

Elsie is a bit unusual for a mass market character: she’s an aging party girl, even, as some in the novel observe, a slut. Her addictions to Diet Coke and fast food are also unusual, but they fall within the realm of personal eccentricities every good sleuth must have. Though Elsie’s choices in men are dubious and she drinks too much, she’s fiercely competitive in her pursuit of the truth, and all about integrity in the courtroom. This contrast between her seamy private life and her dedicated public service is oddly endearing and enhances Elsie’s credibility. She’s a bright but flawed human being doing the best she can, and her best is very good.

Elsie’s shallow, glory-seeking supervisor palms off a case of child abuse, perhaps expecting Elsie to lose. She undercuts Elsie throughout the novel, but Elsie digs out damning evidence on a sleazebag named Kris Taney, accused of having sex with his three daughters—and a girlfriend, too, who sometimes watches. Needless to say, Kris has endlessly abused his wife, Donita. Kris is a stereotypical monster, though a recognizable one: burly, domineering, crafty but at the same time stupid, always about to break into violence.

The clever defense attorney pokes some holes in Elsie’s case, implicating Donita and several other characters in a child pornography ring, and Allen throws some meth into the stew as well. Altogether, this family must be just about as bad as white trash gets.

There’s one more ingredient: the code of the hills business. No matter how bad a man is, he’s one of our own, and we’ll rally around him. Bands of whacked-out evangelicals, as extreme as Fred Phelps’ Westboro bunch, appear in court to support Kris Taney, and harass Elsie, the liberal jezebel, outside it. This is the code of the hills, according to Allen, but the notion seems more paranoid than real. That common citizens in rural Missouri are likely to be hostile to the likes of Elsie shouldn’t come as a surprise, and Allen stacks the deck with her crazies.

To one smart cop’s—in schlock romance parlance, the approved suitor’s—credit, he forces Elsie to attend an evangelical service, and she learns, or sort of learns, that not everyone in southern Missouri is keen on enabling rapists. The scene is agreeable but somehow fainthearted.

If we are to believe rural Missouri is so full of degenerates, we ought at least to say the same about Alabama, Maine, Saskatchewan and, Lord knows, the Hamptons. Otherwise, Allen’s novel is yet another contribution to the flyover notion that the Ozarks is full of ignorant, incestuous hillbillies, rather than run-of-the-mill Trump voters. Those Trump voters are, to be sure, rather harder to portray.

The suspense Allen builds through 467 pages never lets up—except at the end of the novel, when one of the crazed evangelicals gets Elsie alone and threatens her with, well, God knows. Elsie stabs him in the eye with a sharp pencil, and the world probably divides here, between those who cheer for this sort of melodrama and those who think the scene contrived and silly. It undercuts and devalues the preceding narrative. That narrative, with its assured portrait of life in the courtroom, legal maneuvers, and negotiations among participants, is awfully well-done.

Faubus: the Life and Time of an American Prodigal (1997), by Roy Reed

Orval Faubus was governor of Arkansas from 1955 to 1967. These days, he’s chiefly remembered as the governor who did everything he could to block the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. But Reed (1930-2017), who worked as a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette and the New York Times, offers up a full account of the man, as complicated as any of us.  

Faubus could honestly claim his hillbilly origins—a political asset in Arkansas. He grew up poor  on a farm in northwest Arkansas, near Fayetteville. Somewhat astoundingly from a contemporary perspective, Faubus’s father, Sam, was not only a farmer, but also a Socialist. He belonged to a loose affiliation of Socialists in the early 20th Century which advocated for farmers’ rights in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. Orval himself briefly attended Commonwealth College, a left-wing enclave that sprang up down in the southern Ouachitas. Reed’s detailed account of the school, and Faubus’s activities there, are compelling.

Much later, in the 1950s when Orval stood for state office, he was accused of being a Communist. It would have been fair to call Faubus a liberal, and possibly because he was from the highlands, where few African-Americans lived, he showed no signs of racism. He campaigned to improve the lives of all poor people, and in his first administration, he managed to achieve better schools, more humane prisons, and improved treatment for the mentally ill.

So it’s ironic that he became a strident racist, but in the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), white supremacists in Arkansas and many other Southern states grew rabid. Faubus, a lifelong Democrat, faced a formidable, segregationist candidate, and if he hoped to get re-elected, he had to take a segregationist stand. At first he tried to temporize, pointing out the real likelihood of violence if Central High School were integrated. Faubus knew all along that segregation was doomed. Still, before it was over, he was as mean-spirited a racist as George Wallace.

Faubus’s later terms fell into the pattern of cronyism and corruption that often plague long-lived political machines. To take one small example, state employees were forced to contribute to Faubus’s campaigns—and, in Arkansas, those came along every two years. Like Nixon, Faubus had his lists of enemies. Ominously, his Criminal Investigation Division (CID), operated as secret police, wiretapping, spying on, and harassing anyone with integrationist leanings. Faubus at the height of his power will remind the reader of Richard Nixon in his paranoia, and Donald Trump in his pettiness.

Faubus’s downfall was sudden. It seemed nobody really liked him, and his old friends deserted him. He fell heavily in debt to build an impractical house; he had an affair with a younger woman and his marriage broke up. His new wife, a close friend of the Eureka Springs quasi-Nazi, Gerald L.K. Smith, was a vicious, unstable woman, and that marriage failed, too. At one point, Faubus took a job as a bank teller, and he was briefly involved in the ill-fated theme park, Dogpatch USA.

Orval Faubus managed to crawl out of debt. He made other, futile attempts to run for governor. He wrote memoirs. He tried to make amends to Daisy Bates, Little Rock’s determined NAACP worker, and claimed to support Jesse Jackson for president.

None of this mattered. Faubus had become an obscure, rather pathetic figure, remembered only for obstructing the march of history.

The Outlaw Album (2011), by Daniel Woodrell

My dad ran a few sheep on a small farm south of Cabool, Missouri. Neighbor dogs ran together,  sometimes, chasing the sheep, and one big mutt led them. Dad, who’d grown up in Indiana where the rules of country life were somewhat different, shot the leader and dumped the body down an old dug well. In a day or so, the dog’s owner came calling—and he came more than once. I was five, and all I remember was that the man wore heavy boots and that he was very, very angry, but without the corpus delecti he couldn’t prove my dad had shot the dog.

Almost everybody likes dogs, but for men back in the hills, dogs can matter more than the wife and kids.

That’s pretty much what Woodrell’s “The Echo of Neighborly Bones,” the first in his collection of twelve stories, is about. The narrator’s wife has a dog named Bitsy that kills guineas on the neighbor’s farm, and the neighbor, like my dad, is not from the Ozarks, but Minnesota. The neighbor shoots Bitsy and the narrator shoots the neighbor, then spends several days mutilating the body before he dumps it in the deep woods.

“Returning the River” works the same ground. It opens quite dramatically with a young man running across frozen furrows, and his almost-dead father trying to catch him, but then falling down, bruising his frail skin, breaking off his oxygen supply. This is because the young man has set fire to the new neighbor’s fine new house, which blocks a view of the river that the young man, the father, and generations before have revered. He’ll rebuild that house, the young man’s brother says. Yes, but Dad will be dead by then.

Woodrell is often compared to Faulkner, and in “The Horse in Our History,” a story evoking small towns from a hundred years ago, you can see why:

A Saturday in summer, the town square bunched with folks in for trading from the hills and hollers, hauling okra, tomatoes, chickens, goats, and alfalfa honey. Saturday crowds closed the streets around the square to traffic, and it became a huge veranda of massed amblers . . . Farmers in bib overalls with dirty seats, sporting dusted and crestfallen hats, raising pocket hankies already made stiff and angular with salt dried from sweat wiped during the hot wagon ride to town. In the shops and shade there were others, wearing creased town clothes, with the white hankies of gentlefolk folded to peak above breast pockets in a perfect suggestion of gentility and standing . . . The hardware store was busy all day, and the bench seats outside became heavy with squatting men who spit brown splotches toward the gutter. Boys and girls hefted baskets of produce, ate penny candy, and screamed, begged nickels so they could catch the cowboy matinee at the Avenue Theater.

Wow. I have the barest memory of this kind of scene, on the square at Ava, and it was almost gone even then. Woodrell catches it perfectly.

Another oddly-titled story, “Black Step,” is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. It features a shell-shocked Iraq War veteran who’s been in and out of treatment and can function again, but is so numbed by war he cannot feel. A woman visits him for sex and he tries his best, but his mind wanders. She wants to get married and he doesn’t know why. Word comes that he’s cleared to go to war again, and his mother tells him the woman who wants to marry him has been asking around how much he’d be worth dead. The story drops you into such a pit of hopelessness that it’s hard to take.

Faulkner was often pretty funny, and at first blush, Woodrell doesn’t seem to be. He glories in violence and his characters are all misfits whose triumphs, if they could be said to have any, are often perverse. Then I read, “Dream Spot,” about a married couple driving along, bickering, bickering, who encounter a hitchhiker—a young woman. The wife immediately accuses her husband of lust and infidelity and predicts he’ll run off with the girl. The husband denies it and finally stops the car, puts it in reverse, and aims it for the girl—not to pick her up but to hit her. The hitchhiker manages to dodge the car, which veers off the road and down into a gully. The man and wife “hung upside down, hidden from the road and doomed together.” The hitchhiker steals the woman’s purse and the man’s wallet. The man looks over at his wife as if to say, “You happy now?” And the woman, lips bleeding, almost smiles. Well, as a satire of marriage, that’s pretty funny.

Depressing, violent, dazzling, melodramatic, lush, funny, strangely-titled, lovely stuff.


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.