Sandy and Wayne: A Novella (2015), by Steve Yates

Yates draws upon his summer jobs with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to imagine this love story between a tough highway inspector, Sandy Coker, and a tough road builder, Wayne Sheridan. Wayne represents a Missouri company that takes over a job botched by an Arkansas firm, which allows Yates to layer in the minor, though always-present rivalry between the states.

Sandy, an Arkansas country girl who got an education, is assigned to inspect Wayne’s work. He’s a good engineer who’s loyal to his patriarch of a boss, while Sandy is mostly loyal to her profession; as a woman doing a man’s job, she’s had to be better than her colleagues, and above reproach. Inspectors are seldom popular with builders, and Sandy has a chip on her shoulder besides. Wayne deflects Sandy’s bravado and comes at her whimsically, sideways.

It won’t do for an highway inspector to have an affair with a highway builder but the reader knows it will happen, and once it does, Yates shows the tender side of both characters. Sandy raises fine horses, and partly it’s those horses that turn Wayne and Sandy into a couple. But both are slipping into middle age and have grown too headstrong to make sacrifices. So there is something half-finished about their romance, like Wayne’s old Camaro, sanded-down and primed, but still needing paint.

Yates’ love story portrays a modern relationship in which no one is willing to give. If the woman won’t yield to reason, is she worth the bother? If the man thinks she should conform to his needs, does the woman really want him? Maybe life alone is superior to living where you don’t want to, or giving up your farm and your beautiful horses. Or maybe both characters are simply selfish, and allow pride to overcome love. Maybe pride always defeats love.

And maybe it doesn’t. Maybe there’s a way. Yates offers up his thoughtful, lyrical meditation in the wonderful form of a novella—all the precision of a short story, all the complexity of a novel.

Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State (2009), by Brooks Blevins

Blevins goes all the way back to the founding document of Ozarks writing, the traveler Henry Schoolcraft’s journal from 1818, to show where Arkansas’s benighted reputation began. Schoolcraft says of one Arkansas family: “Their manner and conversation were altogether rough and obscene . . . characterized in partaking of whatever was disgusting, terrific, rude, and outré in all.” Hillmen cared only for hunting and valued their dogs more than their women. So begins the legend of the Arkansas—Ozarks—hillbilly, and things don’t improve much.

The hillbilly became the dominant Ozarks image: a dissolute, illiterate, often criminal fellow addicted to moonshine. But an alternative, nearly opposite narrative also rose: the white Ozarker was a primitive but pure Anglo-Saxon who lived in harmony with nature and was naturally virtuous. This Ozarker was popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Harold Bell Wright and his myriad imitators.

Neither portrait was entirely false, and anyhow the state had few defenders even into the 1950s. Even today. The state vied with Mississippi for the rank of 49th or 50th in seemingly endless categories.

Blevins traces the state’s dubious image through some godawful novels and a spate of Ma-and-Pa-Kettle-type movies from the 1930s in good, scholarly fashion. Casual readers may be most  interested in Blevins’ history from World War II onward: for instance, his portrait of the  hillbilly politician, Orval Faubus. In 1957, Faubus added racism to the image of a state that had never really been Southern. Famously, Faubus put up every imaginable obstacle to the “Little Rock Nine” in their efforts to integrate Central High. Faubus was also an overwhelming influence in the development of Dogpatch, USA, which took its inspiration from Al Capp’s comic strip. Essentially, Dogpatch was Harrison, Arkansas’s attempt to make money off its own ridiculous image.

Another Arkansas politician, Bill Clinton, comes off well by comparison, though Blevins shows how the Rhodes Scholar could play up his Bubba-dom when it served him to do so.

In one of Blevins’ more startling stories, Marilyn Quayle, wife of the candidate for vice president, insulted the state at the 1992 Republican Convention. She then tried to “ameliorate bruised feelings” with a letter addressed to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Arizona.

In other words, this poor state can’t catch a break. One is left in awe at the amount of second-rate material Blevins had to digest, but he wrote a fine, sometimes amazing book. His history of the Arkansas image is honest, self-deprecatory, and a little sad.

The Shepherd of the Hills (1907), by Harold Bell Wright

For better or worse, The Shepherd of the Hills is the most famous Ozarks book. It’s an Arcadian novel, a European, sentimental style of romance in which a bucolic, or pastoral lifestyle is held up as a vanished ideal. Part of the conceit is that urban life is corrupt and enervating. This had resonance in a country that in the early 20th Century was still largely rural; if you fled to the city, even if you did well there, you might grow nostalgic for the simple virtues of country life.

Here’s the story: A mysterious, religious old man, Daniel “Dad” Howitt, comes to the Ozarks near Branson, Missouri—as did the Disciples of Christ minister, Harold Bell Wright. This was Branson before the big lakes were built, and, indeed, before there was a Shepherd of the Hills theme park.

Dad Howitt becomes a shepherd in a place called Mutton Hollow. Nary a sheep walks across the pages, but anyhow it’s hard to miss the metaphor of Howitt, like Jesus, as a shepherd of men. He’s a gentle, sorrowful old fellow who is readily accepted as wise and good. He comes to the aid of many a neighbor, most notably Old Matt Matthews, his wife, Aunt Polly, and their stalwart, bashful, not overly-bright son, Young Matt. He also befriends Jim Lane, a good man with a dark past, and his beautiful daughter, Sammy.

Everyone sees that young Matt and Sammy are made for each other, but Sammy longs for sophistication and has sworn herself to Ollie Stewart, who has ties to the big city. The reader knows immediately that cardboard Ollie will lose out—yes, he may have fine clothes, but he’s a superficial, materialistic man, and a weakling.

Sammy has a third suitor, Wash Gibbs, a brutish fellow and the leader of the Bald Knobbers. (The Bald Knobbers, those vigilantes who arose after the Civil War and tried to keep order, then devolved into rural gangs, had run their course by the time of Wright’s novel. Wright’s thugs have no politics, only a dark, vague past. But they rob a bank, lynch an innocent man, and contribute to the denouement.)

Eventually, as the reader knows she will, Sammy chooses Matt, but not until after a rather mawkish course from Dad on how to be a lady. Some book learning helps, but Sammy discovers she’s already a lady, a simple, rustic beauty with a pure soul.

Finally, we learn the reason for Dad’s Ozarks sojourn. Many years before, his son came to the region and fell in love with Old Matt’s daughter. The boy, an artist, painted the simple, pure maiden standing by a stream, and the painting, now missing, became famous. Alas, when he returned to the city, the boy spurned his country girl, leaving her to die in childbirth. Her son is a sickly, but prescient woods colt who wanders about speaking dark truths, like an Ariel or Caliban. When Dad Howitt’s son, overcome with guilt, returns to the hills to marry the girl, he finds that she’s dead, and then he, too, disappears. But no, no, Dad’s Howitt’s son is alive! He lives deep in a cavern, one last, noble deed to perform.

Wright’s romantic distortions make it difficult to tease out what character the Ozarks actually had a century ago, if it had any character beyond its isolation and poverty. However, Wright’s version of the Ozarks is more agreeable than the one where the average citizen is an illiterate, tobacco-chewing moonshiner whose older sister is also his mother.

The novel has enjoyed so many editions that it’s difficult to total the sales, though in the 1920s Wright was said to be the best-selling American writer of all time. Shepherd’s fame was helped along by its various film versions, the best-known of which starred John Wayne. Wright died in 1944, leaving behind some nineteen books and a number of lesser efforts. Like most writers, you’d have thought he’d be forgotten by now.

But The Shepherd of the Hills got turned into a theme park, located on Branson’s famous strip. This outdoor pageant ran from 1960—about the time Branson expanded into a tourist destination—until stuttering to a lightly-attended halt in 2013. New ownership brought it back the very next year. Nothing is forever, but The Shepherd of the Hills might as well be.

The Shepherd of the Hills (film, 1941), directed by Henry Hathaway

Not much to be said for this film, at least if you are looking for a faithful rendition of Harold Bell Wright’s novel. First up: the movie was shot around Big Bear Mountain, near San Bernardino, and doesn’t look at all like the hills around Branson. (Hathaway pulled the same trick with True Grit, shot almost forty years later in Colorado. Snow-capped peaks in Oklahoma!) Saintly Aunt Mollie becomes a shrew, and the Bald Knobbers are nowhere to be found. Young Matt (John Wayne) brews moonshine, and revenuers make an appearance. Wash Gibbs (Ward Bond) checks in, but only so Young Matt can fight with him. There’s no Ollie Stewart. Pete Matthews (Marc Lawrence) briefly appears, but without an explanation for his condition. Gone is the subplot about Daniel Howitt’s son, the artist. Gone even are the religious overtones. Virtues? Even though it’s 1941, the film is in technicolor, much to the benefit of a luminous, sensual Betty Field, as Sammy Lane. And Harry Carey’s performance as Howitt is gentle and sorrowful, lending the film what gravitas it can claim. Also, Hathaway manages to scare up a herd of sheep.

https://www.amazon.com/Shepherd-Hills-John-Wayne/dp/B008A1TXX6/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1518161426&sr=1-1&keywords=shepherd+of+the+hills+dvd

The Legend of the Albino Farm (2017), by Steve Yates

Yates is from Springfield, Missouri, and weaves his saga around a Springfield legend he encountered as a child, about a farm, once a model farm, that declined to the point it was overrun with thugs and libertines. It’s the refined, disciplined past versus ignorant, decadent modernity. Or: build a paradise, and the barbarians will come.

“Emerald Farm” all began with a self-made man—a working man, Frank Headley—in the 1920s. Headley established an exemplary dairy. He built a stone silo and stables. He raised fine horses and trotted them around a track. He dug a forty-acre lake and folks from Springfield came out for excursions, as well as to ride through Headley’s cave. (This last seems to be a reference to Fantastic Caverns.) Then Headley’s lungs forced him to sell out and move to Arizona.

Enter the rich Sheehy family and the beginning of decadence. They keep apart from the community and seem to think themselves superior, though they’ve never really done anything. They learn to farm but share little of Headley’s genius. The family slowly dies out, and Headley’s hard-won creation begins to seem cursed by accidents and disease. One Sheehy dies of a flesh-eating cancer.

The last Sheehy will be Hettienne, a tall, pale girl with intense blue eyes. She has visions that Yates calls fits, though these fits don’t seem to be physiological. They’re part of the family curse. Hettienne envisions Goths and bikers and other decadent folk, dancing down by the river, vandalizing the stables and the old mansion, and setting fire to all. Echoes of Faulkner here, maybe Hawthorne.

Hettienne’s visions are real, but still the curse is a self-fulfilling prophecy. One night, wandering in her sleep, she covers herself in a white, luminescent horse liniment. Her favorite uncle, James, discovers her, and to protect her from a family eager to tear her away from Emerald Farm (and maybe place her in psychiatric care), he guides her down to the creek to wash off. In the half-light, James and Hettienne make out trespassing soldiers, home from WWII, cavorting with their dates. James covers himself with white liniment, too, and the two descend on the intruders as “streaked hillbilly djinn,” crying doom. From this incident, the legend of the crazy albinos is born, and becomes a gratifying tale of evil for evangelical Springfield. The splendid old farm hurtles toward ruin.

James is the most sympathetic character in the novel, and his relationship with Hettienne the most appealing. His death, years later, takes up several moving chapters that bring out all the family at their best and worst.

And the scenes featuring James inspire some of Yates’s finest writing. Consider this sharp image: “James’s bedroom smelled of urine masked with rosewater.” How better could you describe a sick man’s room? So much misery is expressed in just eight words.

At the Catholic hospital, where officials have concluded that James’s fall from the rock silo was suicidal, and where James lies comatose, Hettienne’s maiden aunts “hunched like two pissed barn cats” at the doctor’s arrival. Have you ever been around a barn, with its half-wild cats? Again and again, Yates makes these precise comparisons, all of them a delight to read.

The downside of such rich language is that it slows the pacing. But this is a literary novel, not an overwrought thriller from Doubleday. Yates makes rather a point of this when Hettienne and her new husband, Wes, visit a local hamburger dive, and Wes snootily wonders why anyone would eat in such a place. Hettienne’s unlikely, postmodern rejoinder: “There is no truth . . . only narrative style.” Maybe so, and Yates’s lush narrative is certainly admirable, but such exchanges will make some readers root for the barbarians.

Yates gets at something, though. When I was a kid, I tagged along with my dad, an electrician, all through the Missouri counties of Texas and Wright. More than once I saw some grand enterprise go up, where some fellow from St. Louis or Chicago built a fine house, put up showy fences with a fancy gate, and hired a bulldozer to dig ponds and scrape the blackjacks off the hills. The man ran cattle, maybe a few horses, and in five years he was broke, his pastures sprouted oaks again, and the locals, who knew all along the outsider would fail, descended like vultures on the poor Chicagoan’s auction. Historically, the Ozarks is an insular region steeped in poverty. It’s fine when some good old boy strikes it rich—the original Mr. Headley. Outsiders, no matter how blameless, are asking for it. Those hicks you thought were so primitive will feast on your demise.

Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks, by Guy Howard

Unspeakable tragedy descends upon young Guy Howard, an educated, upright Iowa farmer who wants only to farm and teach school. His wife, Madge, dies from diphtheria in a year when corn prices are so low it makes more sense to use the crop for fuel. Guy must care for three young children, one of them sickly. He moves his family back in with his impoverished parents, and then his mother dies. As he walks into the little town of Chariton to wake up the undertaker, he falls to his knees in the snow, and in that moment feels the call to preach.

The following summer, he walks to the Ozarks in his one suit of clothes. Through the kindness of strangers, he reaches a settlement in south-central Missouri, the town of Mulberry in Hickory County, where there’s a school in need of a teacher. That “school” is all but abandoned, but Guy puts himself to work cleaning up the grounds, finding desks, and securing books. More formidably, he has to negotiate among stingy, ignorant, and sometimes malevolent citizens, many of whom brew moonshine and are distrustful he’s a “revenuer”. They need a school, but they need salvation even more.

The Gospel of Guy is fundamental but forgiving, and he proves himself to be a gentle, imaginative arbiter. In an era when governmental services hardly existed, Guy is a sort of social worker. He strives mightily to steer young men away from moonshine. More than once he comes to the aid of a pregnant girl with no husband. Without judgment, he takes the confession of an old woman who raised eleven children fathered by her father.

And Guy is poor. Schools pay him almost nothing and his jobs are never secure. Congregations reward him with meals and good will; once, he’s the recipient of a “chicken shower.” He can’t afford clothes or to house his two boys. Remember: Guy does his work, walking across mountain trails from church to church, during the Great Depression. Everybody’s broke.

Guy meets his new wife, Mary Louise, and they take over a Christian Church in Houston, but the Methodists and Baptists got there first. Guy crusades against saloons, putting some of them out of business, but he and Mary Louise go bankrupt and must place their three children into an orphanage.

Desolate, hungry, they walk to Branson, and at last they find a position where they can support themselves and their young family. Guy Howard discovers, with all his selflessness, that he’s a little bit famous. He begins to sell articles, and finally, he writes this book.

Though written by a preacher, Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks is not preachy. It’s a colorful, humble, realistic account of a devoted man’s attempt to live usefully among an insular, impoverished people. Perhaps no other account so intimately portrays the backwoods of the Missouri Ozarks in the 1930s, where there were few automobiles, and even radioes were rare. Moreover, it’s hard to understand the Ozarks without taking fundamentalism into account, and Guy Howard’s memoir certainly does that. Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks is a spare, frank, funny, inspiring book.

https://www.amazon.com/Walkin-Preacher-Ozarks-Guy-Howard/dp/B0043VTNK0/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1516129383&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=walkin%27+preacher+of+the+ozarks

The Woods Colt, by Thames Williamson

The Woods Colt was first published in 1933. It’s a simple, fast-moving tale about a stubborn young hillbilly, Clint Morgan, a “woods colt.” Woods colt is a hill term for bastard, and the status more or less dooms Clint from the outset. He is without much schooling and has no prospects. He has one friend, a colorful story-teller named Windy Gifford, and Windy is true to the end, hiring on with the sheriff’s posse and deliberately throwing it off Clint’s trail. Clint’s tough-as-nails mother and his errant father stand by him as much as they can, but his mother is alone and poverty-stricken, while his father has a vicious, tattling wife.

Clint’s troubles begin with a two-timing girl, pretty Tillie Starbuck. She likes Clint but Ed Prather, the postmaster, would surely offer her a better life. Rapidly, callow Clint fills up with jealousy and attacks Ed in the Hokeville post office. Clint wins, but Ed successfully claims that because the fight occurred in a post office, it’s a federal crime. Clint is thrown in jail and awaits arraignment in federal court.

“He is in the littlest room you ever seen, no bigger’n some folks’ smokehouse, the hull wall made of cement, an’ bars for a door.”

Because Clint is a kind of wild animal, he reacts like one. He knows what happens to moonshiners—they rot at Leavenworth. On the way to the federal court, he grabs the marshall’s pistol, and would kill him if he were sophisticated enough to figure out the safety. Only a few days later, he does kill a federal man, and then the posses descend in a breathless, you’ll-never-take-me-alive sort of chase. Remarkably, a fourteen-year-old girl, Nance Darby, comes to Clint’s aid, and Nance proves true.

Remarkably, also, Tillie and her uppity father get their come-uppance in a vivid, terrible scene that is barely short of a lynching. Subtly, Williamson shows that Tillie is probably innocent, while Clint, thirsting for revenge and unquestionably a victim, is in the wrong.

Williams wrote his story in dialect you’d have a hard time encountering anymore. He explains his method in his dedication: “For Vance Randolph, because he is the acknowledged authority on Ozark dialect, because we traveled them thar hills together, and because he twice went over this story in the painstaking effort to make it regionally perfect.”

I spent a lot of my childhood in Texas and Wright counties, and back then you could still encounter the “Ozark dialect.” Williams is masterful with it but perhaps not “perfect.” Certainly, if there is an unimpeachable authority, it’s the famous folklorist, Vance Randolph, but I was slightly thrown off by “always.” Randolph renders it “allus,” which is how many Ozarkers pronounce always even today. Guy Howard, in Walkin’ Preacher of the Ozarks (1944), renders always as “allers.” Williams stays with “always.”

A quibble. The Woods Colt is a marvelous rendering of hill life in the 1930s, and a crackerjack story that ends excitingly, if ruthlessly. Unlike Harold Bell Wright in The Shepherd of the Hills, Williamson is never sentimental. In fact, in its exposition, The Woods Colt is quite modern, while The Shepherd of the Hills is stilted and overwrought. Yet Wright’s novel lives on, while Williamson’s has sunk into obscurity. Go figure.

Note: The Woods Colt was illustrated by the extraordinary woodcuts of Raymond Bishop, one of which appeared on the cover.  

https://www.amazon.com/Woods-Colt-Novel-Ozark-Hills/dp/B00085NBLC

Slant of Light, by Steve Wiegenstein

The subtitle of Wiegenstein’s Ozarks story is “a Novel of Utopian Dreams and Civil War,” and that’s exactly what it is. In 1851, in Leavenworth, Kansas, an army colonel’s daughter, Charlotte Sumner, falls in love with a visionary author and lecturer named James Turner. After a quick courtship, the two marry, and then Mr. Turner goes on the road again. He makes his living as a lecturer, reading from his utopian novel, Daybreak. And then a wonderful (or terrible) thing happens: a man from the Missouri Ozarks offers Turner a large piece of fertile land where he can put his cerebral notions to a real-world test. Turner names his new colony Daybreak.

Wiegenstein is a scholar of the Icarian Movement, an early communist group with origins in France, led by Étienne Cabet, who like Turner wrote a utopian novel (Voyage en Icarie) that inspired myriad followers. There were a number of such movements in the 1840s through the 1850s, and many founded their settlements on the rapidly vanishing frontier, from the Amana Colonies in Iowa to the Mormons in Utah. The Icarians were unique, or nearly so, in that they were secular, believing in the perfectability of humankind through hard work and a rigid egalitarianism. They founded a vigorous colony in Nauvoo, Illinois (after the Mormons left) and then splintered off to a long-lived settlement in southwest Iowa, and a short-lived effort in St. Louis. Wiegenstein places his settlement, not specifically Icarian, east of Cape Girardeau, in Madison County, along the St. Francis River.

Back to Charlotte. She resents being left with her father while her husband pursues his utopian dreams, and she makes the arduous trip to Daybreak with a new friend, the third major character, Adam Cabot. Adam is an intellectual Easterner and abolitionist who, like Turner, wants to direct his idealism toward practical goals. Wiegenstein hints early on that Charlotte and Adam will fall in love, but they are both highly-principled and nothing happens for a while.

With brutally hard work—pulling stumps and the like—Turner and his followers turn the land into an agricultural commune, and with some success. There’s a catch, however. You can set up your independent community, but you still need a market for what you produce. A sympathetic merchant in Fredericktown buys wheat, and the commune’s one factory operation, making rope from hemp, begins to turn a profit. Even so, Turner is forced to return to the lecture circuit for infusions of cash. It’s not a lack of work, or even of cash, that threatens the colony, however. It’s the imperfection of human beings.

For one thing, Turner has a wandering eye, and cheats on Charlotte with a pretty young French girl, impregnating her. Charlotte and Adam keep their desires more or less in check, but they are lustful all the same, and Charlotte’s outrage over her husband’s indiscretion seems somewhat hypocritical. The colony may be communal, but not when it comes to sex and marriage and child-rearing.

James Turner’s foibles don’t stop with adultery. Protecting the colony from enemies, he murders a man for the greater good, and informs on a Confederate sympathizer whose claim on Daybreak probably has legal standing.  Turner is a seriously flawed human being, posing the question whether a noble experiment can be more noble than its flawed adherents.

What if Turner had been a better man? What if Charlotte’s and his marriage had truly been a peerless model? What if Adam Cabot—the best of them all, and a true hero—had been the one in charge, rather than James Turner?

Probably, it wouldn’t have mattered, because the greatest human foible of all, war, comes to the settlement. Try as he must to keep Daybreak neutral, even spurning attempts to turn Daybreak into a stop on the Underground Railroad, Turner is Unionist. Federal troops are everywhere. But so are Confederate irregulars, and Daybreak itself becomes a battlefield. Afterwards, the settlement remains, but the reader wonders whether it can survive. Wiegenstein addresses that question in a sequel, This Old World.

Steve Wiegenstein runs a cogent website concerning what might be called the cultural life of the Ozarks, at http://www.stevewiegenstein.com/home. He is also an accomplished,  ironic speaker, and you can probably bring him in to talk about all things Ozarks—and his own fine books.

 

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 (http://pioneervillage.org), 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