The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton

The moonflower vine is a type of morning glory, and can grow as wild and invasively as your common backyard morning glory. Really, its prevalence is tropical. I lived for some time in Florida, and probably saw them without knowing it, but in the Midwest the moonflower’s cultivation is less common and it can be a hard plant to propagate. Since it blooms only at night, and often, only in the fall, it’s easy to assign to it an effervescence, a sense of fleeting beauty.

The Moonflower Vine, however, is a realistic, rather than a flowery, representation of country life in the early 20th Century. Carleton was born in Holden, Missouri, just east of Kansas City, and her novel is set in small towns farther east still, at the northern edge of the Ozarks. She portrays the poor-but-upright Methodists, Matthew and Callie Soames, and their four daughters: Jessica, Leonie, Mary Jo, and Mathy.

Carleton gives each character a separate, third-person narrative except for Mary Jo, who begins the novel with her first-person account of a family gathering at the time of the Korean War. Mary Jo is the character who went off to New York for a professional career. She stands in for Carleton, the writer, herself.

Mary Jo soon flashes back to the story of wayward Jessica’s inscrutable romance with Tom Purdy, an illiterate, humble farmboy from southern Missouri—a hillbilly. The two run off to become tenant farmers in western Kansas, and this long sequence may be the novel’s most compelling, the pastoral tragedy, the sense of how cruel farm life can be, rising to the level of Willa Cather.

Carleton then relates the stories of Matthew, Mathy, Leonie, and Callie, each character appealing and flawed. Matthew begins life as poor as the unfortunate Tom Purdy but strives desperately to rise through education. Rise he does, but only to the level of principal in a rural school, which pays so little that he must continue to farm. Matthew craves high culture but can never attain it. He’s limited, though never done in, by his lust for pretty high school seniors, with whom he shares poetry and kisses. He contemplates running away with them in the pursuit of a perfect, cultural life. These romances are mere puppy love but they diminish and humiliate Matthew, because the young women all know better; he is their dalliance with high culture.          Matthew embodies Carleton’s central argument: even as you lay claim to the high moral ground, it crumbles from the weight of your imperfections. Put another way: Methodism is boring.

Mathy is the wild girl, who runs after a recurring rogue character, Ed Inwood. As a student, Ed is the bane of Matthew’s existence, asking disconcerting questions about the meaning of life that Matthew, advocate of truth and beauty, can’t answer. Ed becomes a barnstormer and flies off with reckless Mathy, and again the result is tragic. After Mathy dies, Leonie, the daughter with a level head, falls for him, too. By then Ed has begun to understand his limitations and Carleton rounds him out nicely, giving him a tragic turn and a dollop of redemption.

Finally, in her short last section, Carleton presents Callie, a strong, moral, illiterate farm woman whose one dalliance results in her pregnancy with Mathy, a revelation that makes the reader reflect upon the entire story. You can attend church regularly and espouse high principles, but your humanity will stubbornly assert itself. Mostly, this happens through the yearning to be loved. Love isn’t predictable or convenient; in fact, it’s embarrassing, and sometimes, it ruins you.

The Moonflower Vine, first published in 1962 and a bestseller, was Carleton’s only novel. It has been dusted off a number of times as a “forgotten classic,” and perhaps it is a classic, though it doesn’t rank with To Kill a Mockingbird or My Antonia. It’s a superb example of what used to be called “women’s fiction.” The style is lyrical yet commonplace, always ironic but always compassionate. The novel captures with sharp detail a lost way of life that anyone who grew up in the country will recognize, but never rhapsodizes over “the land.” Carleton describes canning vegetables or church socials from the perspective of experience, and her country characters all long to escape. Still, her novel fills you up with nostalgia. Like the moonflower vine, Carleton’s novel is a pretty thing that seems to disappear even as you are looking at it, portraying a time and place you’d never be able to find.

Reviewing the Ozarks

In southern Missouri, the Big Piney flows from the hamlet of Dunn northward for one-hundred-and-ten miles, through pastures and hilly national forest, until it reaches the larger Gasconade River, which flows into the Missouri.

DOWN ALONG THE PINEY is the title for my collection of short stories that will be published in 2018 by the University of Notre Dame Press. I believe it makes a good title for this blog as well. Like a river, it will meander somewhat.

Mainly, it’s a blog devoted to book reviews. I’ll review whatever I run across, fiction or nonfiction, where the subject is the Ozarks. I’m partial to old books in need of a friend, but if writers want to send me something, I’m open to it. Of course, I don’t guarantee a review.

I was Adult Books Editor at Booklist some years ago. Editors were always keen to get their  hands on the galley of the new bestseller, but once I asked, “What’s the point of covering this book librarians can’t help but know about, and will buy no matter we say? Why not cover the books they haven’t heard about?”

My colleagues thought I was crazy, but anyhow you get my, excuse me, drift.

One other (occasional) emphasis: I’m fond of small town museums, many of which I’ve visited while researching my fiction. Sometimes, these have been carefully curated to represent the county or region where they are located. Just as often, they’re full of odd items outside the boundaries of professional curation. Collections of well-drilling tools, or treadle sewing machines. Reconstructed telephone exchanges from the 1920s, or dental offices from 1910. At Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska (, there’s a delightful collection illustrating the history of the riding lawn mower, spread out like a chart of evolution, from dangerous-looking, reel types to sleek modern machines.

A writer needs a blog to promote his work. Publishers seem convinced of this, though often it’s because they themselves are incapable of promotion. It’s a RULE TO LIVE BY: the more a publisher comes after you for how you plan to promote your work, the more you should consider self-publishing.

Like many writers, I’m a private sort, with little to communicate outside my fiction. And fiction, if it’s a form of communication at all, is a rather opaque form.

What I can do is write reviews.

Two of my eight books are guides to genres—Westerns and Christian fiction. Including the titles covered there, I’ve reviewed something on the order of 6000 books. I began in 1979 with Library Journal.  I’ve reviewed for Springfield Magazine, the Springfield News and Leader, Library Quarterly, the Kansas City Star, the Vietnam Veteran, American Reference Books Annual, Roundup, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and most importantly for me, the aforementioned  Booklist.

I’ll avoid books about which there’s nothing good to say. Or boring museums, for that matter. A negative review doesn’t really accomplish anything except to anger the author. Within your positive review, it’s always possible, and essential if you want to serve your reader, to point out shortcomings.

In the long run, a buddy review won’t help you much, either, though writers will kill to get them.

After a while, a year or three, the website will become a good resource for books on the Ozarks, my own included.

I hope so, though I suspect the prime virtue of a blog is to provide oneself with a deadline. Every two weeks if I can manage it. Maybe only once a month, if I’m deep down in the slough of  concentration.

First up, the classic Ozarks (and American) novel, Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine.  — John Mort