Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America, by Bill Geist (2019)

Geist, a humorist and travel writer widely known for his CBS Sunday Morning features, worked at Arrowhead Lodge back in the 1950s and early 1960s, as a waiter, janitor, dish washer, septic tank supervisor, and bellhop. Arrowhead was owned by Geist’s aunt and uncle and might be thought of as a little bit upscale.

The lodge was built in 1935 just a few years after Bagnell Dam was completed. It lasted in some form through 2006.

Geist portrays a number of  “outlandish” characters, none of whom seem terribly outlandish. His Uncle Ed, the proprietor of Arrowhead, always drove a new Cadillac and drank too much; he was loud and rather a bully. But his flamboyance seems to have been for the benefit of the tourists, who could go away describing him as an unforgettable character. At base, Ed seems to have been a shrewd businessman who ran a profitable enterprise.

Geist has a good time commenting on Lake of the Ozarks kitsch: hillbilly golf, hillbilly souvenirs such as corncob pipes, and roadside attractions such as Tom’s Monkey Jungle and Max Allen’s Reptile Gardens. Nothing intrinsically Ozarkian here; you could have found similar establishments in Florida or the Wisconsin Dells. More interestingly, Geist  writes about the Ozarks Opry and the appearances of such luminaries as Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubbs, both of whom sometimes frequented the lodge. Geist just drops names, however. He doesn’t offer anecdotes.

He’s brutally accurate when he points out that these cheap amusements appealed to the cheap seats: working class people for whom Lake of the Ozarks was almost exotic. On limited budgets, tourists could swim, fish, take a boat ride; they could play carnival games; they could feast until they fell sick; they could smoke cigars and drink themselves under the table at Arrowhead’s “Pow Wow Lounge.” Working as a waiter, Geist knew these cheapskates well. They didn’t tip.

Geist alludes to a lot of sexual hijinks, and these passages are the book’s most energetic. He fondly recalls a skinny-dipping party with lodge employees, recapturing the feelings of a teenaged boy who had yet to experience sex. These are summer camp stories and nothing more, but they’ll jog memories for some readers.

Lake of the Ozarks isn’t about the Ozarks, really. The one exception is a lovely chapter describing an old woman’s (Grandma’s) last day in the place where she’s always lived, Linn Creek. She must leave, her house will be leveled, because of Bagnell’s rising waters.

Geist allows that he’s “an aficionado of the tacky and outrageous.” His book is often fun when it brings kitsch to life, just like cruising a flea market can be fun. It’s all quite superficial and Geist is on safe, middlebrow, CBS Sunday Morning ground. It’s when he tries to make a larger point that he comes across as phony:

I don’t recall any whispers or snide remarks about Mike’s [homosexual] proclivities. Funny about these Ozark folk, these presumed rednecks. You never heard racial slurs or nasty remarks about sexual preferences  . . . Not the way you would in far more cosmopolitan St. Louis or Chicago. Now you would hear Baptists badmouthing Methodists.

The passage maintains the stereotype that “these Ozark folk” are somehow different from the rest of humanity. That somehow, in their rustic simplicity, they are more decent and forgiving than city slickers. But if you were white, growing up in most any Missouri small town with a sundown law, you certainly heard racial slurs. And there was verbal abuse—if you were heterosexual—of homosexuals; that’s one of the reasons why gay “folk” tended to leave for the big city. Finally, you wouldn’t hear Baptists badmouthing Methodists. It never mattered that much; Geist is just repeating a mindless refrain that sounds kind of reasonable. This is lazy, thoughtless writing.

Kitsch ain’t what it used to be, and it’s all made in China and sold in warehouses along I-44. The Lake of the Ozarks is still there, of course, though arguably the crown for kitsch—and certainly, the surreal—has moved on to Branson.  Geist’s book is agreeable in some ways but it’s not worth $26. Check it out from your library or buy it used.

Back Yonder: An Ozark Chronicle, by Wayman Hogue (1932, 2016)

In a way, Back Yonder is a standard story of growing up in the backwoods of the Ozarks before the roads were good and the REA brought electricity. It covers what you’d expect: the crops for a subsistence lifestyle, home life in simple log or clapboard structures, what passed for schooling,  courtship rituals, wild goings-on at camp meetings, traveling salesmen, and finally, the rise of the young man/chronicler as he gains an education, gets married, and finds a career.

First published in 1932, Hogue’s memoir is strikingly illustrated with the woodcuts of his son-in-law, Howard Simon, bringing to mind other similarly illustrated backwoods titles from the 1930s such as Thames Williamson’s  The Woods Colt ( ). With his sprightly introduction and endnotes, Professor Brooks Blevins sets the book’s context and explains its significance in the Ozarks canon. It’s among the first of such memoirs, for one thing, and was favorably reviewed in publications as sophisticated as the New York Times and Scribner’s.

Though presented as a literal memoir, Blevins points out that Back Yonder is very much fictionalized: it’s hard to say what town or even region the book is set in (other than the Ozarks themselves), and the young Wayman Hogue is a composite, only approximately Wayman Hogue himself.

But autobiographies are never literally true even when, or especially when, they get all the facts right. Hogue’s discussion of Ozarks vernacular rings true if you have also read through the lexicon of the master, Vance Randolph. His recollections of the primitive educational system—where county funding had to be supplemented by subscriptions, or gathering fees from parents—nicely dovetails with Guy Howard’s Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks (

Some few passages are so eccentric they must be true, such as Hogue’s account of a worthless neighbor who lusted after a widow 30 years younger, despite his marriage to an (extremely) long-suffering woman and their kids. The man claimed God had appeared to him in a vision and told him, since his marriage was only common law, that therefore he must cast off his sinful wife—and marry the widow.

Hogue offers up a wealth of such yarns. His tongue-in-cheek account of a back-country debating society, taking on the question, “Which is more attractive to the eye, Art or Nature?” is a hoot worthy of Mark Twain. One debater offers proof that art is more attractive, but in rebuttal, the champion for Hogue’s side declaims:

“The womurn war all dressed up in purty shoes and purty hats . . . and they war awful purty. The womurn was nature and the close was art, and it war mouty hard to tell which war the purtiest . . . [but] s’posen them womurn had a-pulled off them ar close. ’Course they didn’t do it, but I say jist s’posen they had . . . Then which would the men be a looking at, the womurn or the close? Honer’ble Jedges,  which would you a-been looking at?”

Hogue follows with a visceral account of a public hanging, which he presents dispassionately while including profiles of the train robbers who were hanged. He invents dialogue between them in which they all rationalize their failures in life, blaming them on rich folks in passages that again are reminiscent of Mr. Mark Twain.  Any notion that Hogue experienced all of this personally is out the window at this point.

As an aside, if there were a market for Westerns anymore, Hogue offers up a plot ready to go.

On a day when he’s cheated out of a teaching job, he—or Wayman Hogue, the composite—gets into a brutal, no-rules, back-alley fight, and lands in jail for a day. His opponent in the fight has influence in several counties, and ruins Wayman’s chances at a job elsewhere. So he goes back to school, and is on his way out of the hills forever.

Many a “good ole days” reminiscence is spoiled by a refusal to acknowledge just how difficult and mean life could be back in the hills. Hogue plays it straight. He’s good-humored but unsentimental. He may not be literal, but he’s honest.  What might at first seem to be just another Arcadian exercise becomes, in the end, a thoughtful memoir.

The Literature of the Ozarks (2019), edited by Phillip Douglas Howerton

Howerton, a professor at Missouri State University—West Plains, surveys Ozarks literature from the travel journal of the unofficial founder of Ozarks writing, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft,  through the contemporary scene. He opens the collection with a wonderful, very foreign Osage creation story, put into English by the Omaha Indian scholar, Francis La Flesche. Otherwise, while the 19th Century entries are notable historically, they’re rather thin on literary merit. You’ve got to appreciate Howerton’s diligence, but there is no unsung Hawthorne or Twain to be found here.

The anthology grows more compelling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the startling 1906 essay by Springfield writer Benjamin F. Adams, “What the Negro Must Do.” As Howerton points out, Adams touches bases with the great conciliator, Booker T. Washington, but hints that one day the races will no longer be separate-but-equal, but merely equal. Not that Adams’ essay was in any way responsible, but three months after its publication, three black men were lynched on the Springfield square.

Howerton’s painstaking introductions are all like that, many of them more interesting than the entries. If you just read those introductions, you’d have a fine, long essay on Ozarks writing. Did you know that Robert Heinlein (yes, Grandmaster Robert Heinlein, the sf writer) hailed from Butler, Missouri, and that his famous YA title, Starman Jones, featured a protagonist from the hills? Or that Vance Randolph, one of the Ozarks’ most famous writers, certainly its best-known folklorist, was a high school dropout? Or that, much later, he came just short of earning his Ph.D? Or that he made most of his money with what could be called hack writing, churning out Little Blue Books for the Haldeman-Julius firm, that iconoclastic, radical publisher in Girard, Kansas?

I wish Haldeman-Julius were still around.

Randolph is represented with one of his short stories, an arch little tale of a friendless simpleton, the Ozarks version of a village idiot, who grows fascinated with the U.S. mail, finding that he can get all kinds of free stuff simply by requesting it.

Delightfully, Howerton includes an excerpt from Sycamore, by a novelist Randolph very much admired,  Constance Wagner. Sycamore is an acerbic portrait of an Arkansas resort town, probably Eureka Springs. Wagner wrote for The New Yorker, and one is tempted to say that her style is as historic as her novel: immaculate, correct, conservative. Still, she was a consummate novelist. In particular, her minor characters, ranging from dissolute hillbillies to cultural poseurs, show as much mastery as anyone’s in this anthology.

Howerton presents a respectful portrait of the best-known, and most pilloried, Ozarks writer, Harold Bell Wright, along with the opening chapter of The Shepherd of the Hills. His evenhandedness here is admirable.

Hound dogs are ably portrayed in MacKinlay Kantor’s almost technical description of the art of fox hunting, with an excerpt from The Voice of Bugle Ann; dogs merge with pathos in a story of a country boy in the big city, Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows.

Donald Harington, the fabulist whose novels many think to be the best ever to come out of the Ozarks,  is represented with a sparkling, tongue-in-cheek essay on (among other things) Ozarks place-names, “Finding the Place, Naming the Place.”

Active contemporaries are well-represented with excerpts from the first novel, Slant of Light, in Steve Wiegenstein’s utopian series; a story reprinted from Steve Yates’ Juniper Prize-winning collection, Some Kinds of Love; and an excerpt from Daniel Woodrell’s most recent novel, The Maid’s Version. C. D. Albin’s violent, despairing father-and-son story, “Hard Toward Home,” provides an example of the newer sort of Ozarks story that eschews dialect and back-woods stereotypes to portray people who could exist anywhere, or at least anywhere rural.

Howerton includes a great deal of poetry, most of it free verse and completely accessible, most of it on Ozarks themes such as the fascinating narrative poem by Native American John Rollins Ridge, “The Arkansas Root Doctor,” a comic poem emphasizing the exotic and mythic Ozarks. The most technically proficient poets here are probably John Gould Fletcher, with his lyrical “Thunderstorm in the Ozarks;” and the beloved University of Arkansas poet,  Miller Williams, with “Main Street,” a satirical take on urban sprawl: “The city limits signs of six towns/move toward each other like suspicious children.”

Omissions? Yes, quite a few. The book, at 300 pages, could easily have been 500, though of course a 500-page tome would have been unwieldy, and driven up the cost still more. Howerton does note that some excerpts were unavailable because their publishers wanted too much money. But for what’s it’s worth, Douglas Jones is a strange omission, particularly with This Savage Race, one of the best novels about pioneers ever written, and his Pea Ridge novel, Elkhorn Tavern. There’s the scandalous Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, with her linked short stories portraying Mansfield, Missouri: Old Home Town ( In The Moonflower Vine (, Jetta Carleton’s nostalgic prose rivals Constance Wagner’s, and what’s more, Carleton was home-grown. Sue Hubbell’s ecological memoir about beekeeping, A Country Year ( ), has been a favorite since its publication in 1984.

Also not included are any number of genre efforts, and any number of memoirs from old newspaper editors, not all of which are rose-colored treacle. These latter, of course, are seldom gathered in any anthology.

Howerton has done yeoman’s work here. You can read through the anthology slowly, savoring every entry, and when you’re done, you’ll have a thorough understanding of who Vance Randolph and Harold Bell Wright were, and who is valiantly carrying on their work. The Literature of the Ozarks would seem to be a logical text for any course on Ozarks literature or history, and it belongs in every library.

The Language of Trees, by Steve Wiegenstein (2017)

Wiegenstein portrays the environmental degradation of the Ozarks in his third entry of the splendid Daybreak series, which began before the Civil War with Slant of Light (2012) and continued with This Old World (2014), set during the Ozarks version of Reconstruction.

The woods that cover today’s Ozarks, mostly hickories and oaks, represent second-growth, but in the 19th Century tall, magnificent pines were in great demand for the industrial East. A  rapacious corporation arrives near Daybreak, buys land, builds a company town and a dam, and proceeds to saw lumber. Daybreak has a large stand of harvestable trees, and the corporation wants them. The utopian colony has never quite recovered from the Civil War. Selling the trees means easy money, but they can only be cut once and at a great price environmentally.

Leadership at Daybreak is in flux. Charlotte, widow of James, is the titular head, but she is old and weary and gladly cedes authority to her sons, Newton and Adam. They are the natural heirs, even though Josephine, daughter of Marie and bastard half-sister to the boys, seems to have more talent for administration. Both Newton and Adam have a gift for gab, though Adam fancies himself a poet and is easily drawn in by get-rich-quick talk.

Newton’s weakness is the flesh. One of Wiegenstein’s more compelling portraits is of a free-love cult that moves in nearby, and covets membership in Daybreak. The patriarch pretends friendship with Newton and provides him with one of his concubines, clouding the young man’s judgment and drawing in question his ability to lead Daybreak.

Then there’s J. M. Bridges, the lumber company’s go-to guy, a decent fellow caught up in the late 19th Century’s vision of American primacy and the awesome future industrialization will bring. Bridges is stricken by the cynical Josephine, while she, soured on marriage by her violent stepfather, can’t help but respond to his guileless, clumsy courtship.

Even world-weary Charlotte merits a suitor, a Thoreau-like character who doesn’t try to be a suitor, merely a friend.

Eventually, the machinations of the corporation blow up in violence, but a lot of timber remains, and the corporation remains intact enough to cleverly threaten Daybreak’s trees—and the existence of Daybreak itself. Weigenstein saves some things for the fourth installment, which is in-progress, but The Language of Trees stands alone and complete as the portrait of a transitioning, utopian experiment threatened by base American greed. Still, you’ll want to read the first two volumes. Buy them. Get your library to buy them.

‘Down Along the Piney’ is award-winning story collection set in Ozarks — by Harry Levins Special to the Post-Dispatch — Dec 7, 2018

Writer John Mort of Springfield, Mo., has a special place in his heart for the Ozarks. In 1990, he gave readers a short story collection titled “The Walnut King,” with half the stories set in the Ozarks. In 2011, he produced a novel titled “Goat Boy of the Ozarks.”

And now, he has written another short-story collection, “Down Along the Piney,” which won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction from the University of Notre Dame. The title is a reference to the Big Piney River, which flows northward through south-central Missouri before it empties into the Gasconade. This time, the Ozarks account for eight of the stories — with Ozarkian values like sweaty persistence and weary resignation coursing through each.

Mort’s characters tend toward unhappiness. That tendency breathes sharp reality into Mort’s prose. Take a man named Abraham, resident of a worn-out Ozarks community:

“An outdoorsman, he spent many days away from Red Buck, camping along the Piney River, and in Idaho, he’d tried to find the same wilderness Lewis and Clark had. I think that many times his loneliness nearly drove him insane.

“He’d found no solace touring his origins in Iowa. The farmhouse where he grew up had been gutted and abandoned. He did not recognize the town where he had gone to school, and the school itself was gone. His relatives were dead except for cousins and their children, and they did not know his name. The beautiful girl he almost married before the war had made a bad marriage, divorced, and fled to California.”

Nor do Mort’s stories teem with quirky, O. Henry-style surprises. Much of his prose deals with the drudgery of everyday details, polished by Mort into interesting, sometimes fascinating reading. A sample, dealing with a short-order cook in Florida:

“Up at four and walk to the diner, turn on the lights and air conditioner, brew coffee, tune the radio to classical station from Gainesville, bring in the deliveries of bananas and orange juice and ground beef, stir some eggs for scrambling and omelettes, bring down the ancient waffle iron, turn on the grill. Fix himself bacon and eggs and grapefruit, sit with strong, sugared coffee, read the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald, carefully fold them and put them on the counter along with the Toronto Daily Mail and the New York Times. Plug in his laptop and send a message to his son: Doing fine, sending you some money for your grades. The air force put up a satellite yesterday, what a big firecracker! Say hello to your mother.

“Switch the radio to country and western from Orlando.

“Open the door.

“Ted the Bum came first, promptly at six, but then he’d been up all night and breakfast was his reward to himself. That he’d reached yet another sunrise was reason enough to celebrate, but he was sober in the mornings, clear-eyed for a few hours.”

Since the decline and fall of magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, the audience for short stories seems to have dwindled to high school and college classrooms. The rest of us can pick up a copy of “Down Along the Piney” to realize what we’re missing.

Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.

Thomas A. Peters review of DOWN ALONG THE PINEY, in Ozarks Watch, Fall/Winter, 2018

Both the Ozarks and the Piney River are at once real and metaphorical places. Two real rivers, the Big Piney and the Little Piney, both flow northward (yes, northward) in a parallel fashion in the central Ozarks region, eventually emptying into the Gasconade River. At unexpected moments throughout the stories in John Mort’s prize-winning new book, the metaphorical Piney River glimmers from the pages, often in startling ways. In one story, the Piney flows into a “great inland sea.” That’s a stretcher, because neither Piney has been dammed. Although the book’s subtitle declares that these are “Ozarks Stories,” many of them are not actually set in the real Ozarks, for the most part. But most have ties to the metaphorical Ozarks, perhaps best perceived as a state of mind.

Mort’s new collection of thirteen short stories is published by the University of Notre Dame Press. Nine of the thirteen stories have appeared previously in literary journals and anthologies, and several of them, including “The Hog Whisper” (see below), which won a 2013 Spur Award, have been honored on their own. The book as a whole is winner of the 2018 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, which is sponsored by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English at Notre Dame. If, like me, you are wondering who Richard Sullivan was, here’s the answer from the English Department’s website:

Richard T. Sullivan graduated from Notre Dame in 1930 and joined the University’s faculty as a writing instructor in 1936. In addition to writing numerous book reviews for the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, he published several short story collections and novels, including The World of Idella May, The Three Kings, Summer After Summer, The Dark Continent, and First Citizen. A popular undergraduate teacher, he is remembered for his description of writing as ‘hard work requiring patience and idiotic perseverance.’ He died in 1981.

What animates most of these stories are the characters looking for something from life that they cannot quite articulate and have not yet found or attained. Not money, mind you. Love would be a four-letter word describing what many of these characters seek. Strained and broken relationships abound. In advance praise for this collection, author Shann Ray describes Mort’s stories as “exquisite and lush in the desert of America’s failed attempts at intimacy.” Many of Mort’s characters long to escape and make fresh starts, which is a recurring theme in American literature, from Huckleberry Finn to the Little House books. For example, in “Mission to Mars,” the main character Brad shouts as he witnesses the launch of a Mars mission, “Oh lift me, lift me up….Take me up!”

Many of these stories are gritty, but this collection is not part of the “Ozarks noir” genre currently in vogue. Very little meth, moonshine, or monkeyshines occur in these stories. All of the characters, male and female, are interesting and engaging. In “The Hog Whisperer,” Carrie Kreider sympathizes with hogs, who are often understood as demonic pariahs. Carrie finds fulfillment of sorts in figuring out a method to make hog shit from CAFOs smell sweet.

The thirteenth story in this collection, “The Hidden Kingdom,” is my favorite. It is whimsical and fanciful, but it also resolves most of the disappointment, anguish, and parcels of vain strivings tied up in the previous dozen stories. Eddie is frustrated, bored, and hungover with a dead-end job (“Oh, the curse of a world in which everything is known! Where there’s only sex and bad food, jobs you sleep through, and people you wear out in four months. Surely, there’s more, but I can’t see it!”), but he achieves a hillbilly nirvana by using his lottery winnings, divided into small bundles secured with butcher paper, to escape from the south side of Valdosta, Georgia, and a string of four-months-max girlfriends, as well as a phantasmagoric string of neon retail hell, culminating with a night spent in a motel near Graceland in Memphis coupled with an early-morning Elvis sighting in a Piggly Wiggly, to the Ozarks. There Eddie finds peace, meaning, and fulfillment in his life, meets a schoolteacher, and their relationship continues strong well past the four-month mark.

Highly recommended

A Country Year: Living the Questions (1984), by Sue Hubbell Country Year: A Journal of the Seasons at Possum Trot Farm (1957), by Leonard Hall

After some thirty years of marriage, Hubbell’s husband left Hubbell and their bee-keeping operation in southern Missouri. She casts no blame but you feel her loneliness, her buried grief, on every page, even though her short chapters are often levied with bemusement over, for instance, the war between a blacksnake and chickenhouse mice.

Hubbell makes a perilous living with her 200 hives, kept not only on her farm but on neighboring farms. She travels about in her cantankerous pickup truck, making friends with the local people even though she’s plainly an Easterner and a literary sort in the bargain. On the farm, she observes not only bees but birds, deer, insects, and snakes. She shrugs off the common Ozarks fear of the brown recluse spider: she’s bitten herself and claims the bite to be no more significant than that of a tick or chigger.  Similarly, she downplays the deadliness of copperheads and rattlers, though she’s wary of water moccasins.

Note that Hubbell wrote her book before the widespread appearance of the varroa mite, colony collapse disorder—or cell phones.

Hubbell becomes a sort of Thoreau in her self-reliance: shingling her house, repairing her pickup, and cutting firewood with her chainsaw. This is probably one explanation of the memoir’s popularity (particularly with women readers): without making pronouncements about relations between the sexes, Hubbell stakes out a quiet, feminist claim.

Not all of A Country Year is about nature. Hubbell’s farm borders a small river, and on the opposite shore, the VFW operates a campsite. Hubbell is friendly with the vets and sometimes hosts her own gatherings at their camp. One night, some old men knock on her door, wanting to use her phone. It seems a young Vietnam vet has killed himself and the old men are deeply shaken. Hubbell comforts them, and the scene gives the memoir some much-needed, human texture. We all share this sadness, Hubbell seems to say.

In her explorations of the natural world, Hubbell is making a spiritual search, though it has nothing to do with her evangelical neighbors. Something does well up in her quest, not as philosophical as Thoreau or as ecological as Wendell Berry, but beautiful in its way. Readers celebrate the memoir’s lyricism and Hubbell’s seemingly effortless ability to describe the natural world, harking back, indeed, to Thoreau—and maybe John Burroughs, who also wrote about bees. Rereading Hubbell, however, what comes through the strongest is a sweet sorrow.

Sue Hubbell’s memoir may fall something short of a “beloved classic,” but it was a bestseller in the 1980s, is still in print, and launched a fine writing career. Hubbell died on October 18, 2018, at age 83.

THE FIRST THING one might say about Leonard Hall’s Country Year is that it’s practical. His descriptions of natural processes, even more of farm life, are every bit as insightful as Hubbell’s, but he’s all about the economics of running a model farm. Hall practices good animal husbandry, works in harmony with the seasons, treats the soil respectfully, and tries to turn a profit.

His book, expanded from columns that originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is laid out by the month, which is a neat, simple scheme. It allows Hall to range widely from the solitude of winter to the hopefulness of spring to the frantic work of summer to harvest in the fall. It’s seasons, rather than months, that emerge from A Country Year.

Hall is philosophical, but more in the vein of a conservationist than an environmentalist. The difference is sometimes subtle, but Hall is a hunter and fisherman as well as a farmer; he simply believes that such activities must be done responsibly. He doesn’t understand humankind to be an interloper whose very presence harms nature; rather, he’s a manager. In this spirit, Hall can wax poetic:

We roll across our fields on the seat of the tractor with our heads enveloped in exhaust fumes. No longer do we walk in the furrow with the sun on our backs, conscious of each  plant the plow turns under, of the rich life that exists in good soil, of the blackbird following along behind us to pick up his morning meal. If we don’t watch out, we are apt to find ourselves believing that it is the noise of our passage which makes the corn grow; and this is a conceit in which farming loses it real meaning.

For people of my generation, Hall’s book isn’t dated; rather, it’s nostalgic in how it portrays veterinarians,  auctions, neighbors, canning produce, butchering—the latest, scientific techniques. It tells you that the stalwarts you grew up admiring were hard workers with good intentions, even though they set in motion the likes of Monsanto and Tyson and Smithfield Foods. Hall would have been horrified by modern farming, but I know there are Halls out there, still, doing the best they can to manage their land—and animals—with respect for the natural world. It’s just that the task has grown much more difficult.

The Weight of Blood (2014), by Laura McHugh

McHugh begins her (first) novel with the discovery of  the mutilated body of Cheri Stoddard, a sweet, somewhat retarded girl and friend of one of the narrators, Lucy Dane. But Cheri’s story, it turns out, is less important than Lucy’s attempt to unravel the mystery of her mother’s, Lila’s, death shortly after Lucy’s birth. That is, Cheri’s death is part of a larger mystery.

As an Ozarks book, The Weight of Blood is rather good with flora and fauna and what might be called historical lore. Did you know, for instance, that a cat will suckle a newborn ’possum, or that hogs go crazy for persimmons? On the other hand, McHugh’s characterizations of men are kind of stereotypical: the good ones are passive and go along with what women want, while the men who are bad, and they are very bad, are sexually violent and depraved.

Apparently, though they might claim otherwise, people eat this stuff up.

Chief  among the latter sort of man is Lucy’s Uncle Crete, a clever-but-brutal businessman with many an ugly rumor trailing him, including that he runs a backwoods white slavery—one might as well say, white trash—operation between the little town of Henbane and Springfield. McHugh mostly just hints darkly about this operation, but her sex scenes, including a rape, are graphic and well done. In fact, though McHugh’s men don’t ring altogether true, the way in which her women relate to them is intimate and affecting.

As for the women, McHugh pulls off the rather unusual feat of narrating her story from the points of view of both Lila and Lucy, mother and daughter, twenty years apart, and they are convincingly different. Lucy has grown up in a stable environment, raised by her single dad, Carl—Clete’s brother. She’s a typical teenager in some ways, with boys on the brain and college in her future, and she has a nice young man, Daniel, to accompany her in her sleuthing.

Lila, on the other hand, is a portrait in desperation. She’s an orphan from Iowa with no resources, and signs up for a kind of indenture in southern Missouri. She’s strikingly beautiful and that’s her appeal for Crete, who wants her for himself at first and then tries to turn her into a prostitute. Luckily for her, Carl wants to marry her, which will lend respectability to Lucy’s birth. But Lila will die anyhow in a dramatic confrontation, brilliantly staged in an old moonshiner’s cave. Some allusions here, intentional or not, to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Lucy, who reminds one just a little of a Nancy Drew caught up a world full of debauchery, solves her mystery, and grows up some, too, as she unravels all the secrets about her mother, and learns why they were secret. This is not my kind of story, because I don’t like how McHugh portrays men and don’t often read mysteries, but what do I know?  On amazon, The Weight of Blood boasts—count them—518 reader reviews. That’s extraordinary.



Down Along the Piney, reviewed by Timothy J. Bazzett (amazon)

Customer Review

5.0 out of 5 starsMort at the top of his game. Immediately relevant. Loved every one of these stories!

By Timothy J. Bazzett on October 11, 2018

Format: Paperback

First things first: every one of these stories is first class fiction, and I loved ’em all. It is such a pity that short story collections are such a hard sell in the book industry, because these stories are WORTH READING and WORTH YOUR TIME!

I first discovered John Mort’s work about five years ago when I picked up a used copy of his first novel, SOLDIER IN PARADISE (SMU Press, 1999). Although I was late in finding it, I was blown away by the book. Since then I’ve read a couple more Mort books (GOAT BOY OF THE OZARKS and THE ILLEGAL), both very good. And now I’ve read the latest, DOWN ALONG THE PINEY: OZARKS STORIES (his fourth short story collection), and, as I’ve already indicated, every story in it is simply superb, and I was hooked from the first page. “Pitchblende” gives us “the Colonel,” a crazed Korean War veteran, bulldozing a Missouri mountain top in a futile search for uranium while his family disintegrates around him. The story’s narrator is his son, Michael, looking back years later, at memories of shooting rats at the local landfill, his mother going back to school and gradually drifting away, and his own wonder and puzzlement at having survived his tour in Vietnam, where several of his high school classmates died –

“I was a warrant officer. I was a pilot, and twice I was shot down. Who knows why, but the bullets flew all around me, and i was never touched.”

And then there is “The Hog Whisperer,” in which Mort gives us Carrie Kreider, an autistic “backward, and unusually large, country girl,” who “was gifted, it turned out,” and won a full scholarship to Kansas State, where her master’s thesis was “on how containment hog operations could be more humane.” A huge Texas farm conglomerate hires her to research how to “make hog s**t smell sweet.” There’s more, of course, as Carrie tries to negotiate the pitfalls of men’s cruelty and the mysteries of falling in love. It’s simply a lovely little story in which Mort might have been channeling the inner life of Temple Grandin.

“Red Rock Valley” makes a sharp turn into the inner life of a lonely homosexual, his partner long gone, succumbed to AIDS, as he returns home, where his father is dying. Robert ‘Killer’ Coogan is the emotionally damaged veteran in “Behind Enemy Lines,” living on a river island in an old school bus with a wolf as his only companion. Bad teeth force him out of his isolation to a VA hospital, where he discovers, as one of his companions calls it, “Money for nothing … Good as it gets.”

“The Book Club” explores the lives of a sect of women outcasts, ex-cons, unfit mothers and misfits, with murmurs of Shirley Jackson’s classic story, “The Lottery.” And “Mariposa” gives us an intimate look into the tough times of a migrant worker family, forced to return to Mexico, as seen through the eyes of a teen daughter, U.S. born, who cannot adjust.

But of the thirteen stories presented here, the centerpiece – and the longest, at fifty pages – is unquestionably “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him,” a look inside a Jim Jones-like, utopian, wilderness Ozarks community of assorted evangelicals, militant survivalists, crazies and hangers-on founded by a retired army sergeant known only as “Top.” The toxic mix of guns, religion and fanatacism come to a boil and erupt in murder and the stalking of a political candidate with a shady, criminal past. This is a story that has immediate relevance in our country’s current atmosphere of hate and division. Mort has peopled it with very believable and human characters, especially young Birdy Blevins, a former drug addict ‘rescued’ by Top, who becomes, first, an emaciated Christ-figure in a Passion Play tableau put on for tourists in the New Jerusalem settlement, and, finally, the cop-killing “Jesus Boy,” the object of an interstate man-hunt.

John Mort is at the top of his game with these latest stories. I’ll say it again. I loved every one of them. My very highest recommendation.

– Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER

The Maid’s Version (2013), by Daniel Woodrell

Reviewers often compare Daniel Woodrell to William Faulkner (easy to see), Flannery O’Connor (not really; she was a devout Catholic and much funnier), and Cormac McCarthy (again, because of the Faulknerian prose, the violence, the testosterone). One might also add Jim Harrison (Harrison was better with plots), Thomas McGuane (more absurd), and here’s an odd one: Erskine Caldwell. Caldwell had none of Woodrell’s dark vision, his style was less elegant, but Woodrell shares Caldwell’s acquaintance with Southern poverty and his proletarian sensibilities.

The other factor complicating how to regard Woodrell is the movies: Ride with the Devil (from Woe to Live On) and particularly, the movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone. The movies are Woodrell’s work, too, if only indirectly.

Still, with all of that, one shouldn’t lose sight of the writer himself. He’s not an imitator. For one thing, he writes fiction about the Ozarks, and not many good writers have. I was partly raised in a town not far from West Table (apparently, West Plains, Woodrell’sYoknapatawpha) and he gets every detail right without obsessing over those details.

Woodrell draws from an actual event, a dance hall explosion in West Plains in 1928. Thirty-nine people died, many were injured, and the cause was never quite pinned down. (There’s also a non-fiction account from 2010 by Lin Waterhouse, The West Plains Dance Hall Explosion ( =UTF8&qid=1533097990&sr=1-2-ent)

Woodrell opens with the maid of the title, an old woman named Alma Dunahew, who’s hosting her grandson, Alek, for the summer. The short novel, almost a novella, is Alma’s account to Alek of the family’s tough history. Alma came from an abusive home. She’s all but illiterate, and eked out a bitter living working for West Table’s more prosperous families. She hardly had food for her own children. But the reader suspects she knows the cause of the explosion, and that’s all Woodrell needs for suspense and to drive to the heart of this old mystery.

After Alma sets things up, Woodrell tells his story with short chapters, featuring portraits of local hussies, St. Louis gangsters, bankers, drunks, and snobs, all of whom may be candidates for the ultimate ruin. These quick, seemingly casual characterizations are the best part of the book. In particular, there’s the fire-and-brimstone preacher, a character who shows up often in Southern fiction, but Woodrell dusts him off and makes him real again: “Preacher Willard accepted the Ten Commandments as a halfhearted start but kept adding amendments until the number of sins he couldn’t countenance was beyond memorization.”

Gradually, two characters emerge as more important than the others: Alma’s younger sister, Ruby, much more comely, much more flirtatious than Alma; and Arthur Glencross, a self-made man, appealing but flawed, who heads the local bank and whose sound judgment saved it from disaster. He’s an upright guy but can’t resist Ruby, and she, a woman who’s made a career out of mesmerizing men, can’t resist him, either. Their affair edges right up to lurid—and stops.

That’s all there is to the plot except for the brilliant end. Woodrell tells a brooding, sorrowful story, in the process offering up an incisive portrait of the Ozarks that used to be—not corny, not even quaint, but universal.