A Fine Collection That Will Leave You Touched

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To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts

If you’re a fan of short stories, especially ones with a modern rural base, you’ll like this book.

Not that the characters in these stories are all farmers; in fact, few are. Instead, many are that more common species, the offspring of farmers, women and men who went off to college or who have been squeezed out economically, and are now making a living in “the city” – Minneapolis/St. Paul or elsewhere – and feeling the loss and vague guilt that comes with being severed from those roots.

To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts is full of hard feelings. Siblings hold grudges; parents cling to unreasonable expectations; neighbors misunderstand and judge. But below these hard feelings is the longing to make things right. This is a lovely book of stories, in which the drama, unforgiven wounds, and generational misunderstandings of family members are balanced by their halting attempts to heal those wounds and slights. The characters are drawn with a quiet deftness that sometimes make you forget that they are characters at all, in prose that is likewise quiet, not showy, but always well targeted.

“Fish Eyes In Moonlight” was my personal favorite of the collection, a monologue from the point of view of an old man facing mortality, counting up his losses, mistakes, and moments of redemption. But all ten of the stories have a similar yearning for the moments of harmony that occasionally — but only occasionally — counterbalance our stubbornness and failing. A fine collection that will leave you touched.

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Images of the Past

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Researching my next book, I came across this trove of photographs in the online magazine Monovisions. 

There’s something about the visual image that arrests in a way that verbal descriptions never do. I lose myself in a narrative or descriptive account, letting my imagination recreate the scene; but with a photograph or map I find myself studying ever more closely, seeking out meaning in the slightest detail.

vintage-st-louis-streets-circa-1900-09

This photograph was identified as “ca. 1900” and located on Market Street. Let’s assume that the street address on the photo – 1310 – follows the same numbering system in use today. Here’s what’s there now:

1310 Market Street Today

A pocket park next to City Hall.

I’m tempted by the story, how the city went from Image A to Image B, but I’m also irresistibly drawn to the image itself. The life in that photograph! The man peering out from the dark interior on the left – is he the proprietor? And what draws his attention? The blurred passerby near him, or the two loafers propped again the liquor window farther down? I can’t make out the posters in that window, but they appear to be promoting a circus that’s coming to town. Below that, California wines are advertised. California wine, in Missouri, at that time? I never imagined.

The enormous billboard on the roof is another infinite attraction. The Forest Park Highlands will be opening for the season soon! There’s a matinee at the Imperial! And who can resist Tomlinson’s Dead Shot and Quick Relief Oil? I’d buy a bottle just for the name.

Pavers

And these pavers, identified as working on Compton Avenue north of Meramec in 1906, spiffy in their neckties. Why so many paving stones out? I’m guessing it had something to do with getting a good fit of the stones, with pride in one’s craft. Judging by the spires of St. Anthony of Padua in the background, this looks to be the block today:

Compton Ave

Those stone paving blocks are still underneath the asphalt, I’ll bet. That would be Gasconade Street crossing, which puts the location way south in St. Louis, down in Dutchtown. A solid and respectable address even then, with gaslamps, limestone foundations, and a big brick neighborhood church. You can see in the background how the paved street will improve the place, as the rutted dirt track leads up the hill to St. Anthony’s.

Street scene

Finally (for my purposes, anyway: there are more photos in the article), an unidentified street in the early twentieth century. It’s just the beginning of the motorized era; a sleuth more expert in early automobiles could probably identify the year by the look of the light cargo carrier in the right foreground. But carriages still dominate. Ahead of the man in the motorcar is another man in a one-horse gig, following a wagon that appears to be laden with sacks of grain as it labors up the muddy, tracked hill. But most fascinating of all is the heavy wagon coming in from a side street to the left, with an enormous wooden barrel. Delivering? Taking away? Whatever the task, I wouldn’t want to be that horse.

The marvel about old photographs is how the edges, the details, reveal as much or more than the putative subject. The cock of a hat, the item in a window, the passing glance, all speak to us.

The Stream of Time

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I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, a forest-rich region containing nearly ten million acres of dense timberland, and spent much of my childhood exploring the steep hills and crystalline streams around my family’s farm. To my young mind, everything had always been as it was at the current time, so I never considered the history of the region, the environmental and cultural changes it had undergone, or the effects of those changes on the people who lived there. My grandfather, who lived with us during his final years, reminisced about having chopped out a farmstead along the St. Francis River. Our neighbor, a long-time resident, remembered helping his father float enormous rafts of railroad ties down the Current and Black rivers. These tales were just isolated curiosities to me; I never connected them to any larger narrative.

Saint_Francis_River,_USA_04-09Not that history didn’t interest me. I was a good student, and history a favorite subject. But the missing part was the connection between history the subject, filled with names, locations, battles, and Important Doctrines, and history the lived experience.

When I began writing historical fiction, at the age of 52, I came to it as someone who had been writing fiction in a contemporary setting for decades. The year was 2007, the United States was at the peak of its embroilment in the Iraq war, and I had been engaged in the scholarly study of 19th-century utopian communities, more from personal curiosity than as part of any systematic agenda. I had developed an interest in utopian groups after reading a rather snide reference to the Icarians in The Communist Manifesto while I was teaching a Great Books class at Centenary College of Louisiana, wondering “Who the heck were the Icarians,” and then chasing the footnote across the country, as history fanatics often do. It turned out that the Icarians were a pre-Marxian communist group who emigrated from France to the United States in 1848 and had colonies in various parts of the country as late as the 1890s. Once bitten by the footnote bug, there is no stopping. That endeavor led me to a wider interest in utopianism, especially in Missouri in the years before the Civil War. In 2007, something in the news caught my attention, and I was struck by the parallels between the war in Iraq and Missouri’s experience in the Civil War: an occupying army, a restive civilian population whose loyalties were hard to determine, a landscape in which separating enemy from ally was a constant problem, bands of freelance fighters who used the larger war as an excuse to carry out their own vendettas, and a pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty and violence, in which battle lines were never clear, neighbor betrayed neighbor, and casual encounters escalated to deadly violence in an instant.

All at once the connection between my somewhat recreational study of history and my passion for creative writing became clear. The past could give insights into the present, not simply in the “Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it” sense, but in a more visceral way, engaging with the hopes, jealousies, good intentions, and broken promises of ordinary people caught up in terrible times.

That realization marked the moment when I began to think about my own history, and my home’s history, in a different way. My grandfather’s stories about life on the St. Francis River at the turn of the 20th century; my neighbor’s reminiscences of work in the lead mines and the log woods, and his tales of the great tie drives, with miles and miles of green railroad ties, freshly hacked from the forest, bound together and floated down the rivers to the railhead; these stories from my childhood took on life again.

The Ozarks that I had known as a child had not, as I should have realized even then, always been that way. The thick woods, mostly oak and hickory trees a couple of feet in diameter or less, had once been largely pine, much taller and larger. The rivers, clear but relatively shallow, had indeed carried immense volumes of cut lumber. The mound of earth on the hillside above our pasture, oddly soft underfoot, was the long-ago sawdust heap from a mill that had disappeared, along with the village that had grown up around it, leaving only the stray evidence of an overgrown lane, pieces of equipment rusted to the point of unrecognizability, and a hoard of logging tools in the barn.

History, it seemed, was all around me. It had always been, but I had simply never noticed. And it wasn’t confined to monuments and battlefields, but woven into the scenery.

It’s hard to make the claim that one must reach a certain age to appreciate history this way, but my own experience tells me that perspective is what counts in this enterprise, and perspective is a gift of aging. One becomes aware of the passing of time, and of how familiar sights – a street, a building, a landscape – shift over time to reflect changing ways of life, attitudes, and circumstances. Evidence of life-and-death struggle is concealed in plain sight. A sunken roadbed marks where a forced Indian removal passed. The incongruous name of a boat landing reveals the drowned town that once flourished where waterskiers now skim. You don’t have to get old to notice these things, but age brings an understanding of the impermanence of objects and lives, even ones that we might have imagined as children to be imperishable.

Old Greenville

In my case, the enriched understanding of my own heritage as a fifth-generation Ozarker led to an endless fascination with the stories and conflicts of my region. As a child, my parents repeated a family tale about a great-great uncle who had been killed by a bushwhacker—a guerrilla fighter—during the Civil War. My curiosity about this tale was rewarded when I found a copy of the bushwhacker’s reminiscences, dictated to postwar interviewers, for sale in an annotated edition from the University of Arkansas Press. Like other participants in the Missouri-Kansas-Arkansas theater of the war, which was dominated by savage guerrilla fighting with no fixed lines of battle, he had sought to retell his participation in the fight by casting it in the mythical light of honor and revenge, and an eager audience of fellow reinterpreters took down his musings and published them for posterity. I discovered that my family’s story was true, although the motives for the killing remain in dispute. I picked up books like David Benac’s excellent Conflict in the Ozarks and Kenneth L. Smith’s Sawmill: The Story of Cutting the Last Great Virgin Forest East of the Rockies and discovered that my neighbor’s memories of tie drives, two-man crosscutting, and forests so tall and shady, and thus free from undergrowth, that a man could navigate them at a gallop, were not his memories alone, but shared experiences across the Ozarks and into the Ouachita Mountains as far west as Oklahoma.

This renewed sense of history as lived experience has led me to focus, in my novels, on how people’s conflicting belief systems change the way they live. “Be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming,” Emerson famously said, and the utopian idealists, determined slaveholders, love-maddened romantics, and money-loving capitalists of my novels demonstrate that truism again and again. We are living through history, making history, and becoming history ourselves. So when I turn to history in my novels, I see this simultaneous process of being and becoming repeated at the individual scale, relationship by relationship, person by person.

My earlier novels explored the Ozarks during the Civil War and Reconstruction years. My most recent book looks ahead to the later part of the century, when the Industrial Age came to the region in the form of large lumber and mining companies based in the nation’s urban centers. These companies moved into the deep Ozarks, built railroad lines into areas previously considered impossibly remote, and enlisted the local population in the extraction of the region’s natural resources. From the early 1880s through 1910, Missouri forests produced about half a billion board feet of lumber each year, a number that is as mind-bogglingly large as it sounds. The impact of this era reverberates to this day in the Ozarks, in ways that even longtime residents don’t always notice. For example, the large national forests in Missouri and Arkansas, some of the most extensive national forestland east of the Rockies, largely derive from cutover land that the big timber companies were unable to sell and didn’t want to pay taxes on. The environmentally calamitous cut-and-get-out philosophy of one era resulted in a surprising, and unintended, scenic and environmental benefit in another era.

In The Language of Trees, the quiet utopian community established in the 1850s, having survived the ravages of the war and the agonies of its aftermath, confronts a new challenge: what to do when the Modern Age arrives? The agrarian ideals that dominated the founding of America were giving way to the industrial organization of society, with time clocks, factory whistles, and all the social upheaval that accompanies it. From the contemporary perspective, we might see this transformation as a loss of innocence, and indeed it was. But for the inhabitants of Daybreak, the arrival of the American Lumber and Mining Company is a more complicated encounter. The new people who come to the valley, offering more money than Daybreak has ever seen before for land and labor, are not all the wicked capitalists of communal nightmare; in fact, some are quite charming and conflicted in their own motives. And not all the Communists want to remain Communist. Ultimately the villagers have to find a path that threads between love and self-advancement, between cherished ideals and new opportunities, between a changing present and a fraught future.

And thus history makes its way, neither the steady march of progress our forbears liked to imagine nor the decline from innocence it sometimes seems now, but instead a swift and twisting river that loops back on itself, disappears and reappears, and carries us along with it as we try to steer a clear route while being borne by the current. Come to think of it, history is a lot like an Ozark float stream itself. We think we understand it, we even think we can control it, but in the end it surprises us with destruction, or beauty, or both.

St-Francis_River_-_panoramio

This essay first appear in BLOOM.

That Second Cross-Missouri Trail

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Nice piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this morning about the prospects for a second cross-Missouri trail.

Rock Island Trail

It’s easy to see from the Post’s map that this proposed trail would have much less traffic than the Katy. It doesn’t connect or run near major population centers, as the Katy does. So a nay-sayer might complain about the cost-to-people-served ratio.

But the role of state parks is not always to serve the largest possible number. The map also tells us that this trail would give a much more Ozarks-flavored experience than the Katy; it travels through rougher and more forested territory, and thus would appeal more to the backpack-and-tent crowd than the winery-and-B&B types. So it would have fewer hikers and bikers. So what? Is popularity the only value for a park?

Park advocates (including myself, sometimes) have become habituated to using economic arguments to justify them. But the logical trap to that argument is that people who are swayed by economic arguments can always find a more profitable use for parkland. A recent op-ed in the Columbia Daily Tribune from the head of the Conservation Federation of Missouri argued against a proposed bill in the legislature that would allow nonresident landowners to obtain free hunting licenses. His criticism focused on the cost to the Conservation Department – about $500,000 – and included a list of dire consequences if that money were lost. But seriously, $500,000 in a department whose annual budget is nearing $200 million is not much of an argument. I agree that letting nonresident landowners get free hunting licenses is a bad idea, but not just because of the cost. It’s a bad idea because it perverts the original intent of the resident landowner exception, which was to make sure that farmers and other rural residents could hunt on their own property without too many government-imposed hoops to jump through. It’s a bad idea because it opens the door to abuses, with distant landowners finding off-the-books ways to profit from those free licenses. And it’s a bad idea because it’s yet another legislative run at the independence of the Conservation Department. As with the Rock Island Trail park, the value of an independent Conservation Department can’t be measured in dollars and cents. In fact, measuring the accomplishments of government in dollars and cents is the opposite of the point. Government is not supposed to act like a business, where dollar value is the highest priority. Government is supposed to act in the public interest, broadly defined, and serving the widest variety of citizens falls into that category as far as I’m concerned.

Great parks, like great schools and great highways, are valuable on their own merits, not on what they yield economically. And the proposed Rock Island Trail would be a great park.

Interview: Ed Protzel

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Ed Protzel

My fellow historical novelist Ed Protzel has a new book out today. It’s called Honor Among Outcasts, and it follows his very successful The Lies That Bind. Ed and I have mined similar veins in our work (Missouri during the Civil War), although Ed also has a mystery/thriller coming out this year, also. So it was a real pleasure to visit with him recently about his new release. Here’s our interview:

SW: Thanks for joining me on my blog today, Ed! To start out, I wonder if you could tell us a little about your new book, HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS, and how it connects with your previous novel, THE LIES THAT BIND.

EP: Thanks for having me, Steve. In HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS, the second book in my DarkHorse Trilogy, a Southern abolitionist and a group of runaway slaves form a Union colored cavalry regiment in western Missouri, plunging into the most brutal guerilla war in U.S. history. When the abolitionist and his fiancée are accused of spying for the Confederacy, they must face a corrupt military justice system and other obstacles.

Book 1 of the trilogy, THE LIES THAT BIND, centers on the relationship between these men and their efforts to build their own egalitarian plantation in slavery-dominated Mississippi. HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS begins two years after the end of THE LIES THAT BIND, with the group working as contraband laborers attached to the Union army in Missouri. Both books work as stand-alone novels or, even better, in tandem.

SW: What drew you to this time period in the first place?

EP: I read a lot of history, including the Civil War. Being from Missouri, it felt natural to set HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS in that time and place. However, in my research, Missouri’s terrible neighbor-against-neighbor guerrilla war really caught my attention; it said much about the depths to which hatred could debase the most noble cause. Great material for compelling storytelling. Actually, the periods depicted in the three books — antebellum Mississippi, Civil War Missouri, and Reconstruction Mississippi — form an arc through this pivotal time in American history.

Additionally, all of the DarkHorse novels decry violence, with the main characters attempting to avoid being victims of it. With HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS set during a brutal war to resolve slavery, I didn’t want to resolve the myriad conflicts in the book through violence. Instead, I chose to play out the conflicts  through a courtroom, which tied the plots together very neatly. My characters are seeking justice, and what better place for justice to prevail than a courtroom?

Honor Among OutcastsSW: I see that you have a third novel on its way. Did you envision this series as a trilogy, or is that something that just happened along the way?

EP: Yes, I am now happily completing SOMETHING IN MADNESS, the final book in the trilogy. Actually, I imagined the “DarkHorse” concept as a trilogy originally, but had only written the first book (THE LIES THAT BIND). Still I pitched it to my agent as a trilogy, and she pitched the trilogy to the publisher (TouchPoint Press). It’s certainly been an adventure, and I’ll miss the characters once I’m finished, they’re so real to me after all these years.

SW: On a similar note, are you someone who likes to plot your storylines out carefully in advance, or do you discover things as you’re writing? What’s your creative process like?

EP: Actually, I don’t plot out my storylines in advance. Usually, I come up with a strong concept that offers lots of possibilities and powerful themes, plus good main characters that fit the situation. I also come up with an idea for what I think would be a terrific ending, one which will reveal my themes, and I try to keep that ending in mind as I create the story.

As for the rest of it, once I set the story in motion, the characters and the plot take over—that’s the fun of it for me: the reader discovers as I discover. The novel usually morphs into complex plots that gain power as they go forward, with lots of twists and surprises along the way. THE LIES THAT BIND and another novel, futuristic, that was just picked up (THE ANTIQUITIES DEALER) were written like that. Interestingly however, with HONOR I didn’t have an ending in mind when I began, just a number of conflicts and historical events, all of which I had to tie together and resolve. HONOR is quite atypical for me in that respect.

SW: So, you’ve also got a futuristic thriller coming out. I think working on two such disparate genres would make my head spin! Do you see connections between the two types of writing, or do you keep those creative endeavors in separate compartments?

EP: Good question, Steve. Writing THE ANTIQUITIES DEALER was a nice break from writing historical fiction and refreshed me, cleaned out my head. Historical fiction has so many constraints, including language and character viewpoints that can’t be used because they’re too modern, they’d be anachronistic. No such problem with futuristic and sci-fi genres. Further, I wrote THE ANTIQUITIES DEALER first person, which was also liberating, letting me get into the main character’s head in his own words. Also the contemporary setting (St. Louis) is relatively familiar to the reader, mixed with exotic portions in Israel, and partially in Paris and London. And taking place in modern times, with sci-fi-like elements, I was able to really let go and come up with imaginative plot devices that the reader won’t guess. I really enjoyed this genre and have another, EARTH EXCURSIONS, laid out and ready to jump on when I finish SOMETHING IN MADNESS.

SW: Finally, and I know it’s always a little presumptuous asking authors to comment on “themes” and the like, but what are you hoping that readers will take away from HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS?

EP: I hope readers will see a parallel to today’s world and its own set of challenges. I want them to grasp how HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS illustrates that no matter how unjust society may be, love and friendship can enable men and women, regardless of color or class, to stand together and to prevail. And that evil deeds and the lies upon which they depend can and will eventually collapse of their own weight. Think of our country’s advances in civil rights and the women’s movements, gay rights, etc.

Call me an optimist, but history does bend toward justice over time.

Find Ed Protzel at:

Website: http://www.edprotzel

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/edprotzelauthor/?ref=settings

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Honor-Among-Outcasts-DarkHorse-Trilogy/dp/1946920312/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517584302&sr=1-1&keywords=ed+protzel

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/14757802.Ed_Protzel

“Where Is Ebbing, Missouri?”

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I am asked this question by my non-Missouri friends, in mixed tones of apprehension and excitement, as if unsure whether they’d like to road-trip there, just to see, or to make sure they never get within fifty miles of the place.

Three Billboards PhotoThe newest contribution to the cultural portrait of Missouri is getting a lot of attention these days, an ironic turn given the fact that it was filmed in the mountains of North Carolina and that it makes little reference to the actual state of Missouri (the word “Missouri” is spoken a few times, but that’s about it). So the “Missouri” of the title is hardly referential, and no, friends, there is no Ebbing.

But the question of whether “Ebbing, Missouri” makes sense in a metaphorical way is something else entirely, and should leave Missourians with some soul-searching to do. A recent column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called attention to the ways in which the real state of Missouri is coming to resemble the town of Ebbing, where racism and violence are commonplace, police routinely brutalize citizens without consequence, and most people seem mired in the kind of attitudes we are familiar with from Cool Hand Luke. The columnist writes wryly, “Tourism commissions throughout the state are serving sides of Pepto-Bismol at their monthly luncheon meetings.”

On the other side of the state, the Kansas City Star is excited by a trend it calls “Ozarks Noir,” citing Three Billboards as the latest in a series that began with Winter’s Bone, progressed through Gone Girl, and most recently manifested itself in the Netflix series Ozark, about which I have already commented. The Star points to thriller novels by Daniel Woodrell, Robert Dunn, and many others as signs of something that looks practically like a movement, although a succession of books about meth-addled killers ain’t exactly the Harlem Renaissance. Dunn is quoted in the article of the appeal of the Ozarks: “Part of it is nostalgia for what is gone. Part of it is atmospheric, a place that is dark and brooding.”

I’ll admit to my share of dark and brooding times, and a recent article in the Springfield News-Leader about the “epidemic of despair” in the Ozarks is enough to make anyone feel a bit on edge. But the Ozarks, and Missouri, are not alone in that predicament. Anywhere education is lower, and poverty is higher, than average is experiencing that epidemic as the have-nots grow increasingly distant from the haves; it’s the great challenge of our time. Ultimately, though, I don’t think Three Billboards is about Missouri, or the South (the film’s writer/director said in an interview that the idea for the story came to him while he was traveling in the Alabama-Georgia-Florida region), or social problems in general. If you’re looking for a movie that represents Missouri, or for that matter even tries to represent Missouri, this isn’t it. The odd notes in the language and the setting signal to natives that the film isn’t “about” Missouri in the way that, say, A River Runs Through It is about Montana.

Much of the argument around Three Billboards focuses on the story arc, in which sympathetic characters act horribly, bad characters act horribly, and nobody seems to get the kind of fate they deserve. Crimes go unpunished. People say awful things. The moral universe seems askew. Critics of the film see a failure of the movie’s moral compass in these unaddressed imbalances, an implied acceptance or endorsement of the characters’ ill behavior; defenders see it as simply reflecting the mess and disorder of life itself. I’ll leave it to you to decide where to come down, but will at least give the movie credit for being more complicated and troubling than most of the movies that get the designation of “quality film” or “important social issue film” these days. (On a side note, I would add that the movie’s unrelenting insistence on having virtually all the significant characters use hard-core profanity, presumably to make them sound “tough” or “contemporary,” is tin-eared, tiresome, and untrue to the actual rhythms of rural speech.)

“Ebbing” is not in Missouri. Perhaps it’s everywhere.

 

 

The Pulpwood Queens, Pt. 2

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Author panel at Pulpwood Queens

My author panel at the Pulpwood Queens weekend

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my upcoming trip to the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend. That trip has been completed now, and I’m here to report that it was quite an experience!

The event was held at the Fredonia Hotel in Nacogdoches, Texas, a 1950s-era hotel that has been renovated and modernized. I understand that the hotel hasn’t been open long in its new form, but it was a terrific location! Congratulations to the owners on the job they did, and to the Pulpwoods for choosing it.

The Girlfriend Weekend is a gathering of club members, who hailed from all over the country, and the authors they read. In that respect alone it was a unique event. I’ve never attended an event that had so many avid, enthusiastic readers from such a wide location.

The authors were also a varied group, and I had a good time making new acquaintances. Here are a few photos: The one at the top of the post has Clea Simon, the author of World Enough (she’s a mystery writer), and Reavis Wortham, who writes Texas-based thrillers. At the end is the Pulpwood Queen herself, Kathy Murphy (more about her in a minute). I enjoyed meeting scads of other authors who work in a wide variety of genres: Lorna Landvik (contemporary novels with a humorous twist), Bren McClain (whose debut novel, One Good Mama Bone, was the Queens’ Book of the Year, Tamra Bolton (children’s), Rickey Pittman (children’s ABC books), Romalyn Tilghman, Man Martin, Lisa Wingate (whose latest book, Before We Were Yours, has hit the well-deserved bigtime), Alice Hoffman, and many, many more.

Lorna Landvik

Me with Lorna Landvik, who was the high bidder on my gift basket to raise money for the Pat Conroy Literary Center.

The orchestrator of this event is Kathy Murphy, who is a tireless advocate for books, reading, and literacy. She put the whole event together, co-hosted with author Jamie Ford, and somehow managed to keep this enormous herd of cats pointed in the same direction! It was a delight to meet her. We ended up having dinner together on the night before the event got started, and I was immensely impressed with her verve and zest for the literary experience. There’s a movie in the works about her story, and she’s an author herself!

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The Texas Ornithological Society was holding its winter meeting that same weekend, and the hotel staff helpfully directed us. As if the tiaras weren’t enough of a clue!

It was a long drive, but an unforgettable event! I am hugely grateful to have been invited and excited about a return trip!

 

The Rural Poor

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A friend of mine recently called my attention to this excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, not usually the sort of publication that one associates with societal analysis. But it’s comprehensive, it’s long, and it’s well worth the time.

The subject is the interconnection between poverty, education, and health in a rural Missouri town – Kennett, a town in the Bootheel, the seat of Dunklin County. I don’t remember much about Kennett from my childhood except that I think we drove through it once; it also had an excellent newspaper, the Daily Dunklin Democrat, locally owned, that we read and admired when I was working for the Journal-Banner. (It’s now just the Dunklin Democrat, published three days a week, and kinda-sorta locally owned.)

But Kennett is not the story here; Kennett is merely the example of a story which can be repeated a thousand times across the country. Rural poverty, rural despair, forgotten people whose sense of futility leads to addictive behaviors and self-harm.

What’s remarkable to me is that this story could have been written a hundred years ago. Read Hamlin Garland, read Sarah Orne Jewett, read Sherwood Anderson, and you’ll read these same stories from a different era, with only the superficial details changed. The intractability of rural poverty is a continuing theme in America.

In Sinclair Lewis‘ novels, the warping power of rural despair is portrayed as malevolent, and the smug inhabitants of Gopher Prairie are portrayed as co-conspirators in their own limitation. In the work of someone like Frank Norris, by contrast, the rural folk are helpless victims of larger forces, cruel fate or wicked industrialists.

I think it’s possible to be both villain and victim in one’s own story, as we see in the Chronicle article: people who know the self-destructive consequences of their actions but who do them anyway. The great dilemma of rural poverty is its self-perpetuating quality. Poor folks can’t pay much in taxes, so they are unable to finance the kinds of improvements that would attract industry or a wealthier strata of people; thus the roads grow ever more pitted, the hospitals scratch along with the barest of talent, the educational system strains for the minimum. Putting a dent in rural poverty requires outside intervention. That’s why the state legislators in Missouri (and elsewhere) who turned down the expansion of Medicaid for partisan reasons were so foolish: they were essentially condemning themselves and their own constituents to a cycle of degradation. As we watch the lights of rural hospitals blink out across the state and nation, making those impoverished areas even less desirable to live in (an inevitable consequence of the refusal to expand Medicaid), we can see the future of towns like Kennett. And it’s not pretty.

 

 

The Pulpwood Queens

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Earlier this fall, I was delighted to receive an invitation to participate in the annual get-together of The Pulpwood Queens, an event they call Girlfriend Weekend. I’ve been aware of the Queens for years, after reading an article about them in Newsweek. So when I got the invitation, I said yes without a moment’s hesitation.

For those who haven’t heard of them before, the Pulpwood Queens are an organization of book clubs, founded in 2000 by Kathy Murphy. You can read about her inspiring story here. At the Girlfriend Weekend, the Queens dress outrageously, wear tiaras, and dance the night away. But more important, they share their love of books! They talk books, chat with authors, and celebrate the writer-reader partnership. These folks love books. They are a Reading Nation, as Kathy Murphy calls them.

I’m excited to head for the Girlfriend Weekend next month. And despite the name, the Queens also welcome men — “Timber Guys” is the designated term. It’s not too late to join the fun, so if you’re looking for a mid-January getaway, head to Nacogdoches, Texas, in the heart of pulpwood country.

 

 

 

 

Favorite Ozarks Books – 9

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Bittersweet Earth

I vividly remember the excitement many of us felt upon hearing of the Bittersweet project back in the ’70s. Modeled on the groundbreaking Foxfire project from the Appalachians, Bittersweet was a quarterly magazine of Ozarks folklore written by students from Lebanon High School and edited by their teacher, Ellen Gray Massey.

We loved getting Bittersweet in the mail, partly because of the delightful reminiscences and practical lessons in near-forgotten crafts from its elderly interview subjects, and partly because it was just as delightful to sense the excitement of the young authors as they learned about their community from people they otherwise would likely have ignored. I suspect some of those high-schoolers grew from that experience into careers as journalists, historians, or writers.

In later years, it was my good fortune to get to know Mrs. Massey, who had served as president of the Missouri Writers Guild some years before I did. I’ll confess to a little fan-boying when I met her for the first time.

So when I saw this collection of Bittersweet articles — the second, as Bittersweet Country was published first, in the late 1970s, while this one came out in 1985 — at the book table at the Ozarks Studies Symposium in West Plains, I knew I had to have it. I’ve been reading it in the past few weeks, enjoying the articles, some of which are the simple reflections of high school students suddenly discovering that their own landscape has cultural riches, and some of which are transcribed interviews from “old-timers” (undoubtedly gone now) who talk about their childhoods, their work life, their geography, their families, and anything else that prompts their fancy. It’s glorious to read their words in full Ozark dialect, written down just as they spoke them.

And yes, I’m sure a few of those expressions and stories will work their way into my next book.