Old-Fashioned Words


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[A longer version of these thoughts was presented September 15 at the Quincy, Ill., Unitarian Church.]

People who hang around me long enough soon discover that I have a mad fondness for obscure, old-fashioned, and out-of-the way words. This is true for many people who love to write, but also true for others as well. There’s a special pleasure in finding a word that’s been lying around for hundreds of years, perhaps, just waiting for you to pick it up and put it in your pocket, like a coin on the sidewalk. A few years ago I picked up “petrichor,” which is the smell of earth after a rain, and ever since then I’ve been hollering out “petrichor” at every opportunity. A new old word is like a gift from the linguistic universe, a way of expressing something that previously seemed inexpressible. It’s a feeling similar to the experience I have whenever I get a new eyeglass prescription. Something that was blurry and indistinct, or perhaps even outside of my awareness, suddenly comes into sharp, precise existence. That’s what happens when you find a good, old, right word. The little dimple between your nose and your upper lip becomes a philtrum. And you’ve got a name for something previously unnamed. And what’s better is when you look up the origin of the word “philtrum,” and learn that it comes from a Greek word that means “love charm,” and now you’ll never look at a philtrum the same way again.

Other old-fashioned words are ones that you know quite well, but just never get the chance to use. Like steed, for example. Who wouldn’t love to be able to use steed now and then? But unless you’re willing to sound a little ridiculous,  the opportunity doesn’t arise, even if you do ride horses. But it’s a good word to have around. Still others are words that we might want to possess just because they’re so aesthetically pleasing. When you’re driving past a cornfield at sunset and see a flock of blackbirds or starlings all moving in unison, as if the entire flock is a single organism controlled by one brain, the word for that phenomenon is murmuration. I’ll probably never get to use murmuration in the wild, but I’m glad to know it’s there. Likewise with sillion, which is the name for the little furrow you make with a plow in preparation for planting seeds.

Old words reflect older ways of thinking, and thus they are a glimpse into history. I am struck by how many of our commonplace expressions and idioms have their origin from either agriculture or seafaring, two occupations that the great majority of Americans today have little or no knowledge of. When we talk about feeling in the doldrums, for example, we’re likely to forget that the Doldrums is an old word for an actual geographical location notorious for its lack of wind, known technically as the intertropical covergence zone. In the age of sail, getting caught in the Doldrums meant an extended period of forced idleness, debilitation, and inactivity that was not only tedious, but could even be fatal if your ship’s food stocks ran out. And who but the most dedicated farmers among us will recall that if you sow your wild oats, you’re likely to get a poor harvest, or none at all, and that you’re better off sowing those boring old tame, domesticated, tried-and-true oats. And what’s so bad about it when your chickens come home to roost? Nothing, it might seem, until you think about it in the original context of the metaphor. The original meaning of the phrase was that whatever you send out into the world will always come back to haunt you. In fact, the original expression was that curses are like chickens, in that they always come home to roost. As we might say today, karma’s gonna get you. So when I see an old-fashioned word, and understand where it came from, I am in a real sense looking back in time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other side of this observation is that some old-fashioned words deserve the obscurity they’ve been cast into, for they represent a way of thinking that we have thankfully outgrown. I’ve been reading a book lately called “From Missouri: An American Farmer Looks Back,” by a man named Thad Snow. Thad Snow was a farmer in the Bootheel during the first half of the twentieth century; he bought land near Charleston in 1910 and farmed it for more than forty years. Now Thad Snow was a true radical, one of those classic curmudgeonly Midwestern freethinkers who popped up from time to time during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His most famous moment occurred in January 1939, when he partnered with a sharecroppers’ activist named Owen Whitfield to support a widespread sharecroppers’ sit-in across southeast Missouri after many of them had been evicted by their landowners. He was the only major landowner to support the sit-in, and he was branded a traitor to his class by the other large farmers, who fancied themselves to be a plantation aristocracy of sorts. But in his memoir, written in 1954, he repeatedly refers to Owen Whitfield, his colleague in the sit-in, as a “darky.” Even given Snow’s penchant for making provocative remarks, which seems irrestible to him, this use of language that was out of date and offensive – even back then – makes me think less of him, and to reconsider his stance on behalf of the sharecroppers. Maybe he wasn’t acting out of principle, but just out of foolish contrariness. His language reveals more about his thinking than perhaps he had intended.

And that’s where I am headed with my thoughts on old-fashioned words. In linguistics, there’s a famous and rather controversial concept called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it boils down to this: Our language shapes our thinking. In greater detail, the hypothesis makes the case that all languages focus on certain aspects of life, and the difference in those focuses leads to differences in our thinking. It’s a more scientific version of the old “Eskimos have forty words for snow” idea. If we have the words to express an idea, it will get expressed; if we do not have the words, it likely will not. Linguists have studied the many variations in languages around the world, such as languages that do not have “count nouns” (such as one, two, three, and so forth) and languages that use cardinal directions instead of concepts such as left and right. As you might imagine, the speakers of these languages possess some interesting capabilities that English speakers lack, and lack some capabilities that English speakers own without even being aware that they do. To illustrate that point, linguist Lera Boroditsky points out that although speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, an aboriginal language from Western Australia, do not have what we think of as the basic concept of left and right, they do have a remarkably precise sense of orientation to their landscape. Even a small Kuuk Thaayorre child is able to point north-northwest at any moment, while we advanced Americans would need to get out our phones and hope for the best. The inherent limitations and biases of language are the subject of Suzette Haden Elgin’s science fiction novel series Native Tongue. In this dystopian series, set in the 22nd century, women have been stripped of their civil rights, and a group of female linguists create a language for women as an act of resistance. In this language, called Laadan, there are distinctively separate words for a range of female experiences. For example, there’s a word for being pregnant, a separate word for being pregnant for the first time, and another for being pregnant joyfully.

The words we possess shape the thoughts we can express. If we acquire, and habitually use, the language of violence and exclusion, we enable violent and exclusionary thinking. And the opposite is also true: acquiring and using language of appreciation and beauty bends our minds in those directions. Ruth Dahl, the narrator and central character of Jane Hamilton’s wonderful novel The Book of Ruth, tells us how the verbal poverty of her upbringing has affected her:

We were the products of our limited vocabulary: we had no words for savory odors or the colors of the winter sky or the unexpected compulsion to sing. The language I had to speak to be understood is not the language of poetry or clear thinking.

One of the most repeatedly humbling experiences of my life is teaching literature to young people, because a lot of young people are not instinctively inclined toward literature in the way that earlier generations were. They’ve grown up accustomed to other modes of expression, and a lot of school work involves reading for main ideas and essential elements, not the kind of slow, savoring reading that literary study asks. So you have to re-teach them into different reading habits: don’t count the number of pages till the end, but stop and reflect every so often. Instead of reading for the general sense of a passage, read for every last bit of significance. And when you encounter an unfamiliar word, celebrate! It’s a gift. Needless to say, that approach doesn’t always go over in class. But once in a while, a student will pick up the spirit and discover the hidden revelations of old-fashioned words, the ferocious rigor of keelhaul or the sweet promise of bower.


Some Days . . .


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Bethesda group

Some days being a writer is just plain fun. That was the case on Tuesday, when I visited with some residents of the Bethesda Hawthorne Place assisted living facility in Oakland, Mo., just outside St. Louis. Their book group had been reading Slant of Light, and indeed to help some of the residents with reading difficulties some of the staff members had read the book aloud to them, chapter by chapter. So this was a well-informed bunch!

We had a delightful conversation that went on longer than I had expected, and we covered all kinds of topics, book-related and not. During a discussion of nineteenth-century utopian communities, one resident stepped out of the room. I thought she had just tired of the discussion, or perhaps needed to rest, but a few minutes later she came back with a magazine article on Nauvoo that she had been reminded of by the conversation. Some of the folks had memory issues, and others did not; but everyone got something out of the visit, especially myself.

I was reminded of how lucky I am to be a writer, and to have books that a wide variety of people can enjoy, and to have readers who are so engaged and attentive. And yes, they took me to task over certain plot twists that occur toward the end of the book, and which I will not go into here for fear of spoiling the story for future readers.

Those who underestimate old people do so to their own detriment.


Patriotic Songs – 6


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Stars_and_Stripes_Forever_1When I was in high school, our music teacher for a couple of years was an intense, strange, rather scary man who was also a preacher of some sort. Looking back on it now, I think there might have been something genuinely wrong with him. He had very little emotional control, losing himself in rapture at the music we were playing (or the version that was playing in his head, anyway; we were not particularly musical) or flying into fits of rage whenever kids got under his skin, which was often.

This teacher had two musical passions: old-time gospel music and Sousa marches. He selected far more gospel music than was appropriate for a public school, even in those days, and would close his eyes and sing in bliss as we squawked out the tune. Even the pious among us probably realized something was off about the level of his religious fanaticism as we marched down the street at the regional band festival playing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” But Sousa marches! Now there was something we all could embrace, even the rowdy saxophonists who otherwise lived only to torment our unbalanced band director with sotto voce sarcasm. The teacher’s favorite was the “Washington Post March,” which you don’t hear as much nowadays, but we students preferred the one that you will undoubtedly hear today, July 4, if you watch a fireworks show, listen to an Independence Day concert, or simply keep your ears open as you hit the stores: “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” is written in military march form, in which separate sections called “strains” can be repeated, recombined, and re-sequenced to meet the needs of the situation. If the band is actually marching, for example, the first and second strains can be repeated as many times as needed until the band reaches the reviewing stand, at which time the leader will undoubtedly head for the famous Trio/Grandioso strain that finishes the march, the one we all remember with that crazy piccolo flying up into the sky.

John Philip Sousa, the march’s composer as well as its popularizer, was not just a fine musician and composer; he was also a shrewd businessman. He recognized the potential of recorded music very early and made sixty recordings with the Marine Band during his time as its leader, bringing fame to the band and to himself, before leaving it to start the Sousa Band. Although Sousa was known as “the American March King,” the Sousa Band was emphatically not a marching band; our friend Wikipedia records only eight times that the band actually marched during its forty-year history. The Sousa Band can be found performing at practically every notable event and celebration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where it performed at the opening. By that time “The Stars and Stripes Forever” had become one of its signature pieces, as it was practically an instant hit after its composition in 1896-97.

Sousa also wrote lyrics for the march, although I’d have to describe them as unremarkable. They’re full of patriotic sentiment but not especially original; lots of “the gem of the land and the sea” going on here, filling out lines to match the tune. If you grew up watching Mitch Miller on TV, as I did, you’ll remember the nonsense lyrics better. “Be kind to your web-footed friends . . . ” What makes “The Stars and Stripes Forever” memorable is its grand and stirring music, and that’s all right. We don’t always need words to make us feel patriotic.

Speaking of patriotism, after that band director got fired or left on his own (who knows which?), the school hired a young music teacher, fresh out of college, who actually knew a thing or two about music and played a mean trumpet. He had gone to college after serving in the Army, where his trumpet skills had earned him an assignment to one of the several music ensembles that the Army maintained to entertain troops, play at events, and generally put forth a more humane face to the world than tanks and machine guns. And thus he had found himself out of the line of fire during that time, when the Army was engaged in a full-scale war in Vietnam. I remember him telling me as graduation approached to keep practicing my trombone in case things went sour and the draft was reimposed. “You’ll want to play that horn, trust me,” he said, or something like that.




Favorite Ozarks People – 15


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Joe Brewen and Bill Knight

I have a distinct early memory of the Fredericktown branch of the Ozark Regional Library. When I was a kid of nine or so, I was a frequent habitué of the library, partly because my mom worked there part-time and partly because I was intoxicated with the rows and rows of books, an infinite amount of knowledge or so it seemed, free for the taking. (They also loaned out other things, of course, and I remember showing up at the checkout desk with a couple of full-sized art prints only to be turned away because such things were reserved for grownups. I have no idea what I intended to do with a couple of framed art prints.)

The day I am remembering came after I had discovered the juvenile historical fiction of Joseph A. Altsheler, a popular novelist of the early 20th century whose books were fat, action-filled, and intensely romanticized. In theory, these books were way beyond my reading level; I had to creep out of the kids’ section and into the “teen” section to get them. But I gobbled them up like an addict. So I loaded up my usual week’s supply – three or four books, I would guess – and headed for the checkout desk.

The clerk at the desk took one look at me, with my head barely clearing the counter, and the stack of five-hundred-page books in front of her, each branded with the tell-tale “J” on the spine (instead of the “Y” books I was properly entitled to), and then looked at her co-worker at the desk. Something unspoken passed between them, and she stamped all the books and handed them back to me.

That was when I first recognized the possibility of libraries. A library can turn the most ordinary of transactions into an unexpected opportunity. Its very existence is a statement that doors are never fully closed and that thoughts are ultimately free. Many of us need to be reminded of these facts from time to time; the recent PBS documentary Ex Libris does a wonderful job of it, and if you haven’t seen it yet you should.

But back to the Fredericktown library, and one of my favorite Ozarks people. I’ve been back to that library several times in recent years, putting on programs, leading workshops, and attending ceremonies (that’s what’s going on in the photo above, my cousin Joe Brewen on the left presenting two copies of War of the Wolf to the library – it’s a history of the U.S.S. Seawolf, the submarine on which our uncle Mike served during World War II). My contact person for all my visits has been Bill Knight, who is the other person in the photo.

Bill has been a wonderful asset to the Fredericktown branch, as a recent article in the Fredericktown Democrat-News attests. He’s curious, humble, open to new ideas, intelligent, and devoted to the best interests of the library patrons. He isn’t alone in possessing these qualities, though; all the people quoted in the article have them as well. But Bill gets to stand out in this post because he has just retired from the library. A celebration was held in his honor Friday afternoon.

Bill Knight epitomizes the values of a library, and I am grateful to have gotten to know him. It’s heartening to know that those ideals I first experienced as a child are still alive and in practice.


Restoring the Forest


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Ozark-St. Francis National Forest – photo from National Forest Service

Here’s an interesting new article on the attempt to re-establish the Ozark chinquapin into the forest. It’s a close relative of the chestnut, which was essentially wiped out in the chestnut blight that swept North America from 1904 to the early 1940s, and the chinquapin proved susceptible to that same blight. (There was an earlier article on this effort in the Missouri Conservationist as well.)

By coincidence, I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s essay on forests in his wonderful book The Wild Places, in which he seeks out the remaining wild places of the British Isles and details his experiences in them – islands, valleys, moors, forests, and the like. Macfarlane combines rich and precise description, personal and social history, and a strong literary sensibility to try to give a sense of the significance of each wild place he visits, not just its significance to himself but to the wider culture. Underlying his depictions of these Irish, Scottish, English, and Welsh wild places, with their marvelous ancient names (Rannoch Moor, The Burren, Bin Chuanna, Ynys Enlli, the Isle of Raasay – doesn’t simply reading their names make you want to go see them?) is the recognition that as wild as they are, they are not untouched. Macfarlane climbs a mountain and finds a forester’s hut; he camps on a windswept ridge and awakens to the sound of a lanyard clanking on a yacht in the bay below.

And thus it is with the Ozark chinquapin. The efforts to bring it back from the brink of extinction are admirable in the utmost; and according to the experts, there’s a good chance of success. But we know that the forest to which it will be re-introduced is not the 19th- and early 20th-century forest from which it disappeared.

Castanea ozarkensis

Photo by Eric Hunt, republished under Creative Commons license from Wikimedia Commons.

Will that changed circumstance make the new Ozark chinquapins any less precious or valuable an addition to the diversity of the forest? Not in my mind. Is the deer I see on my hike on the Katy Trail, or the fish I watch on my float on the Black River, any less “wild” because I’m seeing them from the roadbed of an old railway or a stream that is floated by thousands of people a year? Not in any meaningful sense of the word.

“Wild” is a relative term. As the recent news about Mount Everest shows us, even the places considered to be the world’s wildest and most remote are subject to human intervention at all times, for better or worse. What matters is not the purity of the wild experience, but the mental state it brings us, the humility and reverence we feel when we come face to face with natural systems that predate us, exist without us, and in some form or another will outlive us. The “forest primeval” is gone forever; our task now is to appreciate, preserve, and (where possible) restore the pieces that are left.

At the end of his chapter on Rannoch Moor, Macfarlane quotes Wallace Stegner’s 1960 “Wilderness Letter,” and it’s worth quoting again here: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Chain Migration


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I’ve been re-reading Russel Gerlach’s classic study Immigrants in the Ozarksoriginally published in 1976 and now out of print. As you might imagine with any 43-year-old work of scholarship, it has some things I would quibble with, but by and large it’s a fine study and the source of some excellent basic information. I was taken aback, though, at his casual use of a phrase that has taken on harsh political connotations in recent years.

He quotes an earlier work, Wilbur Zelinsky’s The Cultural Geography of the United States, published in 1974:

Once a viable ethnic nucleus takes hold in a given location, chain migration may be triggered. If communication lines are kept open between the new settlements and relatives and neighbors back home, positive information may induce the latter to pack up and follow. In this way, a great many . . . rural ethnic neighborhoods have been expanded.

Nowadays, of course, “chain migration” is used almost as a dirty word in the debate over immigration. I didn’t realize that the phrase had such a long history or neutral use. But a moment’s reflection made me realize that I should not have been so surprised. Chain migration, the phenomenon if not the term, has been the American norm. My own family story is one of chain migration. One adventurous son makes the journey; writes back that there’s opportunity to be had; his brother (my great-grandfather) follows; makes a start; writes home; more family members follow. Most of us, if we look back far enough, are chain migrants.

Sometimes even entire communities were the product of chain migration. As you drive the back roads, you’ll see the evidence of this phenomenon in the names of towns and settlements, some now gone, some still flourishing:












And the list could go on and on (and no, Japan was not named by a group of homesick Japanese settlers!) Everywhere I turn, I see evidence of chain migration’s effects.


Favorite Ozarks Books – 12


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Guestroom Novelist coverThe Guestroom Novelist: A Donald Harington Miscellany, ed. Brian Walter

This review first appeared in OzarksWatch magazine, Series 2, Vol 8 No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2019).

Just about anyone who loves Ozarks writing has encountered the novels of Donald Harington, whether through The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (perhaps his best-known work), With (my favorite), or any other of his fourteen novels, characterized by Harington’s audacious story structure, inventive style, and interconnected references to his other novels. Now comes The Guestroom Novelist, a collection of nonfiction work by and about Harington, edited by Brian Walter, professor of English at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy.

Harington was first and essentially a novelist; Walter recalls an early moment in their friendship when he asked him, “What kind of projects are you working on now?” Harington swiftly replied, “’Projects!’ I don’t do ‘projects.’ I write novels!” Thus one might wonder what can be gained from reading a collection of nonfiction from someone who didn’t expend much of his own mental capital in the genre.

It’s a reasonable question, and one not easily answered. The book is divided into three parts: “Essays, Articles, and Speeches”; “Reviews”; and “Interviews,” with the interview section taking up two-thirds of the book. And the largest part of that largest part consists of interviews that the editor himself conducted with Harington in 2006 and 2007.

The first section includes the title essay of the book, “The Guestroom Novelist in America,” which was first delivered as a lecture in 1990, and which appears in print for the first time here. Strictly speaking, it’s not about Harington’s own work, but about other writers, the kind of writers whose novels never quite achieve the level of recognition and sales they deserve, and are consigned to the shelf in the guest room where they sit, neglected and only occasionally read and rediscovered. But Harington considered himself the “epitome” of guestroom novelists, so the essay provides insight into his self-regard, anxieties, and view of the publishing marketplace. A recurrent note in the book is Harington’s somewhat self-justifying complaints about the vagaries of publishers and agents. Other essays don’t age as well, serving as artifacts of Harington’s concerns at a particular point in his career without offering retrospective insight into his literary contributions.

Likewise with the reviews, which were mostly written for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette between 1996 and 2006. Harington appears to have written them mainly to supplement his income, and some have a tossed-off feel while others are more considered.

But for the fan of Harington’s novels, the treasure of this book is the interviews. Harington was deaf from childhood, so interviewers had to submit questions in writing. As a result, his answers have a more considered quality than many transcribed oral interviews. One lengthy set of “interviews” goes even further. A section titled “The Linda Hughes and Larry Vonalt Interviews” is presented as a transcript of a series of television interviews conducted in May 1979 with two literature professors at the University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology). Walter tells us these interviews “turned up unexpectedly in a search of Harington’s hard drive,” but whether the documents are actually TV interview transcripts is extremely doubtful. It seems more likely that Harington created the “interviews” as a way of discussing his early novels during a visiting professorship at Rolla, basing it on conversations with the two professors, or possibly wrote them later (Walter points out that the interview files use a less-than-common technology for the 1970s). In any event, they provide considerable insight into Harington’s creative preoccupations.

Similarly, in the long interviews Walter conducted with Harington, entitled “The Stay More Interviews” after the name of the fictional community where most of Harington’s books are centered, Harington goes into great length about his characters, plots, and literary goals. Authors are rarely the best guides to their own work, operating more by instinct than by system and over- or under-estimating their achievements; but these interviews provide sensitive readers with excellent insight into what Harington thought he was doing in his novels, which can then be tested against the readers’ own perceptions.

Donald Harington is often described as the Ozarks’ greatest novelist, a description that is hard to dispute. This book is a useful contribution to his thoughts and opinions, but it will appeal more to the dedicated Harington fan than to the uninitiated. Those folks should begin with some of his novels and see if they catch the bug, then return to this book if they crave a deeper dive.




Streetcar City


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During my research into turn-of-the-century St. Louis, I came across this marvelous blog post about the history of streetcars in the city. Ryan Albritton does a detailed analysis of two maps, one from 1903 and the other from 1940, showing the development (and decline) of St. Louis’ streetcar lines and the impact of those lines on the city’s population. It’s a fascinating account, and I recommend reading it. Here’s the 1903 map:

1903 Streetcar Map

Albritton observes how the map resembles an anatomy drawing of the circulatory system, with a the heart (downtown) containing a dense network of lines on nearly every block, and an expanding fan of circulation outward into the residential areas. Lines also facilitated travel to cemeteries, parks, and the soon-to-open World’s Fair grounds. Interestingly enough, there were plenty of north-south lines, too; anybody who’s ever tried to go north-to-south in today’s St. Louis knows how difficult that is. Today’s ease of east-to-west and difficulty of north-to-south only exacerbates the city’s racial divide.

The sad history of the demise of America’s city streetcar lines, helped along by General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil as a way of replacing streetcars with buses and thus boosting their profits, is one of the tragedies of the 20th Century. Albritton cites statistics that between 1917 and 1928, streetcars in America carried 12 to 13 billion passengers annually. That’s an amazing number; think of the congestion that would be removed from our cities if such a system were in place today.

And yet this morning, I read an opinion piece in my local paper from a writer out of one of the usual sources (Heritage Foundation), complaining about the inclusion of “wasteful” mass transit funding in the federal highway bill. It’s only wasteful if you think strictly of governmental dollars and cents, not including the private expenditures on cars, gasoline, and related expenses, the growing gridlock and declining livability of our city centers, and the associated social and environmental costs of being locked into a transportation system tilted toward one person in a car, commuting from a distant suburb.

Serendipitously, I also read a fascinating piece in Politico yesterday about the growing success of Seattle’s mass transit system. Let’s hope that Seattle’s experience sparks other cities to re-examine their approaches to mass transit; nobody expects a return to the grid of electric streetcars that dominated transportation in the early 20th Century, of course, but certainly we should be imaginative enough to consider alternatives to the fossil-fuel powered systems that now rule us, and that relegate streetcars to the role of tourist novelties like the Loop Trolley and the KC Streetcar.

Hail the Local Historian


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I just finished reading Lesterville Community: The Early Years, an oversized, 413-page book that I can guarantee will never be a best-seller. And that’s fine! Because what’s important about this book, and the many books like it, is that it exists in the first place.

The authors, John Jamison (now deceased), Paul Adams, and Wade Hill, all longtime Lesterville residents and graduates of Lesterville High School in the 1950s, have collected documents, stories, photographs, and memories of all things Lesterville-related up to the mid-20th Century, producing a comprehensive portrait of the community’s early settlers, schools, businesses, churches, and pretty much everything else. If you want to know when the first public school was established in Lesterville or who built the garage on Old Highway 21, this book will tell you.

Local historians – and every community, every county, has them, the stalwarts of the local historical society and the keepers of the obscure artifacts – don’t always get much respect from their professional counterparts, who see them as dabblers or region-specific obsessives, who fail to see bigger trends in their determination to record every name on every plat map and census record. But those local historians serve a valuable purpose. They excel at giving a deep feeling for a place, its essential characteristics and its essential people, and the good ones know how to tell a compelling story.

Local historians preserve the collective memory of a place, in an era when memory seems to be in dangerously short supply. And sometimes they discover important but overlooked stories that escaped mainstream attention for some reason. So celebrate your local historian, and contribute to your local historical society! (And if you’d like to buy a copy of Lesterville Community, contact me and I’ll hook you up.)


Taum Sauk reservoir north of Lesterville, under reconstruction in 2009 after its disastrous breach. Photo by KTrimble at English Wikipedia and used under Creative Commons license.

Favorite Ozarks Books – 11


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Down Along the Piney 2

This article first appeared in Issue 8 of Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies.

John Mort has quietly been assembling a significant body of work in novels and short stories that go back more than thirty years. A resident of Springfield, Mort has written fiction encompassing a wide range of subjects and locations, from Vietnam, where he served with the First Cavalry Division, to the American West, to the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks. That stream of work reached an important milestone in September with the release of Down Along the Piney, a collection of short stories that was the winner of the 2018 Sullivan Prize from the University of Notre Dame. This prize recognizes a collection of short stories from a writer who has previously published at least one collection.

Down Along the Piney is a collection of thirteen stories, mostly but not entirely set in the Ozarks. It follows in the path Mort set down in The Walnut King and Other Stories, his 1990 short story collection, and Goat Boy of the Ozarks, his 2011 novel that takes the premise of the short story “The Walnut King” and expands it into a novel-length fiction. (Readers who first encountered Mort through his 2013 novel The Illegal will find it interesting to read the story “The Hog Whisperer” in Down Along the Piney, as the story of “The Hog Whisperer” is retold in The Illegal from the opposite point of view.) Taken together, all these works develop a distinctive and engaging portrait of today’s Ozarkers.

The characters in Down Along the Piney often find themselves in desperate situations – not necessarily physically, but emotionally or spiritually. A poignant story entitled “Mission to Mars” focuses on a young man named Brad Naylor, once the “smartest kid in high school” in a small Missouri town, whose life could be measured by its lapses. Mort writes, deep into Brad’s consciousness:

Surely, if a kid worked hard enough and could think fast enough, he’d succeed. But a kid couldn’t think at all, and story of his life, Brad tripped himself up. He got a scared little Christian girl pregnant. She was cute. Wore those short skirts. They set themselves up in a rented trailer, and saved for a house, and tried, and tried, and tried, to join the middle class.

But Brad’s talent for self-sabotage exerts itself again a few years later when he steals from his employer, the local bank, to make some missed mortgage payments. The theft is discovered, and forgiven, as is often the case in small towns; but something in Brad’s nature doesn’t allow him to accept a life of predictability and limitation. As the story opens, we see him arriving in Florida, having run away from home and family, starting a new life as a short-order cook in a run-down diner. Brad is a fugitive, but not from the law. He is a fugitive from himself.

Pressed by their circumstances, the characters experience loss and longing. This longing may be for an actual place, or for an imaginary place, or for some quality that they sense – intuitively – is missing from their lives. “The Hog Whisperer,” one of the most significant stories in Down Along the Piney, portrays Carrie Kreider, a physically and socially awkward woman, whose oddities alienate her from the people around her although they prove surprisingly useful in her job at an immense hog operation in west Texas. But Carrie’s longing for meaningful human contact pushes her into decisions that most people would call foolhardy. Another story in the collection, “Red Rock Valley,” focuses on Donald Stone, an aging gay man who has lost his longtime partner. He is called home from Chicago to the Ozarks when his father is near death:

He checked in at the nurses station and saw the doctor—a tall, grave Kenyan he could barely understand—the one time he would. “Alvin does not like the catheter. He fights, and he is a very old man.”

“He was never in a hospital. Will he get through this?”

The doctor shrugged almost contemptuously and then caught himself, as if, in the past, he’d been criticized for his insensitivity. He shook his head. “What we can, we do.”

So, Donald thought. My father is a dead man, and that is why I am here.

But in this atmosphere of double loss, Donald seeks reconciliation with his uncomprehending family and healing for his psychic wounds.

Another story in Down Along the Piney places this sense of loss right in the title: “Home Place.” Another strayed son, Wayne Dietrich, comes home to Texas County to review his relationship with his deceased parents and to try to make a new start in life. Fixing up the old home place, he reminisces:

In winter, late at night after Henry and Louise had gone to bed, he liked to prop his bare feet on the oven door, shifting them as they toasted. He read Jack London’s Klondike stories here, as the wind howled out of the woods and slapped snow against the kitchen windows, and the imperfectly dried slab wood his father bought from the sawmill shrilled with escaping steam. He heated cocoa, solved his algebra problems, and fretted whether girls named Susan and Miranda and Meg would go out with him.

“Where are they now?” he murmured, sipping soup as if it would restore life. He visualized each teenaged girl even though they all were in their thirties now, married and divorced and married again. The smart ones, the pretty ones, all left for the city and never returned. You couldn’t make a living in Texas County.

This sense of loss puts the characters into motion, sometimes in irrational or foolish ways, and puts them at odds with the prevailing desires of the people around them. They flee the real or imagined bonds that hold them down. They lash out at those who care for them, or retreat into stubborn insensibility. And occasionally, although this is rare in Mort’s stories, they engage in violence. In “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him” in Down Along the Piney, probably the closest we get in any of Mort’s stories to the hillbilly-noir gothic sensibility we see in other Ozark writers or narratives set in the Ozarks, a young man named Birdy, a former meth user from Shannon County, becomes involved with a right-wing Christian theme park called New Jerusalem near Eureka Springs.

Birdy had learned about Jesus and being saved long before, at the Granderson Treatment Center. If you went on about religion there, they treated you better, and he came to think of Jesus as his ace in the hole. Sometimes, he forgot about it, but down deep still believed he could be redeemed. He said, “I’d rather burn in hell than go back to Shannon County.”

As one can envision from this quotation, things do not go well for Birdy.

Two additional thematic tendencies deserve note. First, many of these stories can be read in terms of their religious imagery. Never didactic or overt, the stories nevertheless bring us characters who are experiencing conflict between what one must call their spiritual and their worldly selves. Some of these characters are specifically thinking about God; others are more generally contesting short-term desires with more abstract aspirations.

Another characteristic is that Mort’s work expands the cast of characters in Ozarks fiction. Not all of his stories in Down Along the Piney are set in the Ozarks, or include Ozark characters; but of those that do, there’s a rich range of characters: poor, uneducated country boys; those same country boys, grown into an aching middle age; the mid-level inhabitants of small town – firefighters, deputies, bureaucrats; fundamentalist preachers and members of their flocks; retired military men, fighting off with varying degrees of success the ghosts of the wars they fought; and to my mind the most significant, expatriates. As we know from our rural sociology, or from our literature, the longing for an absent homeland is an immensely powerful emotion. And in these stories we encounter many characters in economic or self-imposed exile from the farm or small town where they grew up. The sense of longing I mentioned earlier is particularly intense in these stories, even if the characters are sometimes unaware of what they are longing for. The Ozarks means something to these characters, living in Chicago and St. Louis, Georgia or Florida, and an important part of their story comes through their working out that meaning.

I would point to the final two stories in Down Along the Piney as examples of the importance of this impulse. In “Mariposas,” the main character is a fifteen-year-old girl named Portia, born in Arkansas to Mexican parents, who must return to Mexico when the father is fired from his job at a meat-processing plant for being too old and slow. Portia is not someone we would ordinarily think of as an Ozarks character; but she is just as Ozarks as the rest of us, nowadays, and her unhappiness in Mexico is a compound of alienation from the country most of us would describe as her “homeland” and a longing to return to the familiar surroundings of Dardanelle, Arkansas. Ironically, she sees the local girls in Angangueo as “hillbillies,” applying the familiar term of dismissal in the opposite direction of its typical use.

Angangueo, the “hometown” her parents return to, is the terminus of the monarch butterfly migration (thus the story’s title). And so one morning Portia accompanies her father as he guides a group of these tourists, Americans like herself though they would never recognize her as such, into the mountains to see the butterflies. The story’s ending is a gentle recognition of the central metaphor suggested by the title, that Portia and her family are themselves mariposas, migrating in perpetual circulation between their Mexican nesting grounds and their northern reaches for reasons that are unfathomable but impelling. The Ozarks are far from Angangueo, and yet they are not.

The final story, “The Hidden Kingdom,” follows a young man named Eddie, who is for all practical purposes wasting his life in a factory job in Georgia, until by a mere chance he wins the lottery. There is a fantastical quality to this story as Eddie sets out from Valdosta toward an unclear destination. He doesn’t seem to know where he’s going, and as he travels, everywhere seems to be the same: “McDonald’s, Papa John’s, Pet Palace, Walmart, Manny’s Chiquita, Paesano’s, Mattress Land, Home Depot, Kroger, Walmart, Baptist Church, Culver’s, Bank of America, Verizon, Checkers, Target, Comfort Inn, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, Dickey’s.” But his direction is west and north, and finally he reaches a place where the chain stores end. A tiny town on the Piney River, sort of a rustic utopia with a winery, a canoe rental, a dulcimer shop, and of course a drug treatment center. Eddie the Ozark Odysseus has come home, and as he says near the end of the story, “Maybe you came to this woebegone, dreamy place before entering Heaven. You walked through the deserted town and topped a hill. You looked back and couldn’t remember where you parked. You walked on, free at last, toward the singing.”

            Down Along the Piney is an admirable addition to any bookshelf of Ozarks writing, with stories that are sad and sweet in roughly equal measure.

John Mort at reading

John Mort, reading from his work at the University of Notre Dame bookstore.