Art and Influence

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In the car the other day, the Animals’ classic “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” came on the radio, which prompted a cascade of thoughts and memories.

The Animals were never among my favorites of the British Invasion bands, although you had to give them credit. In their short initial incarnation, they produced a string of unforgettable hits and had a distinctive sound. Their version of the folk standard “House of the Rising Sun” is the one that most people remember today.

But “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” has a curious history. It was originally recorded by Nina Simone, in a slow, somewhat jazzy version that focuses on the subtle lyrics. You can hear the ache of the lyricist in her version, the apology and the explanation for foolish behavior, the longing to improve. The memorable guitar hook that the Animals led with is hidden in a violin section, partial and barely noticeable.

When the Animals recorded it, they turned it pretty much into straight-ahead blues rock, capitalizing on Eric Burdon’s gritty voice to make it a perfect anthem for the moment, echoed by teenagers throughout the decades who are dealing with complicated emotions and a sense of disaffection.

But the version that has stuck in my mind the most is the one by Santa Esmeralda, and I remember the first time I heard it. I was in the basement of Douglas Pokorny, a friend I have written about before, and he put the album on. Keep in mind, this was the late ’70s in the eastern Ozarks, where musical variety was hard to come by. How he came to possess the Santa Esmeralda album I’ll never know. But when I heard the flamenco-influenced Latin rhythms of the song, overlaid on the clearly recognizable template of the Animals version, I knew I was hearing something memorable. And the song just went on and on for more than sixteen minutes, filling up the whole second side of the album, the phrases repeating and building into some kind of pop-music ecstasy. In later years I learned that it was a disco favorite, which makes sense, given its propulsive beat and infinite energy.

Three different artists, the same material, three entirely different versions. Whose is the best? Don’t ask me. Each song fits its performer and its moment. The later versions are influenced by the earlier ones, but it would be wrong to say that they were unoriginal.

I’ve been asked several times lately about who my favorite writers are, or who the writers are that have influenced me. I can’t honestly say. I think the best answer is all of them, and none of them. I pick up things from many writers, but I don’t think that I’ve ever consciously copied or been directly influenced by one in particular. I’ve read that there are only [x-number, take your pick: 3, 5, 7, whatever] plots in narrative, the Journey, the Revenge, and so forth. So of course stories will bear resemblance. I think my essential plot is People Who Are Trying to Make Some Sense of Their Lives, but They Keep Getting Thwarted and It’s Usually by Their Own Damn Selves. Not sure if that’s one of the 3.

Favorite Ozarks Books – 17

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I’ve been reading the new book of poems by Dave Malone in bits and pieces over the last month. Like most books of poetry, it rewards dipping in and out.

I suppose you could say it’s not technically an “Ozarks” book, since there are sizable sections of it that are set elsewhere, when a place is specified, and many of the themes are not Ozarks-specific. But there are a lot of Ozarks poems in here, and a lot of Ozark sensibility, too. In one of my favorite poems from this collection, “Pentecostal Ladies,” he writes: “Their skirts bloom sunflowers, / a decade or two out of favor. / I wave from my front porch / though I know one day they’ll sidle up / in their ballet flats and tell me what for.” And it’s that “what for” that slaps down so delightfully true.

A few things I note about Malone’s work: first, it’s very precise. This is poet who does not just throw in the expected word. Often he leads us into a phrase then turns it ninety degrees, shifting the mood of the poem unexpectedly. The poems are best read slowly, because you never know when that turn is going to happen.

Second, Malone’s poems do two things that I don’t always see in contemporary poetry. For one thing, they are sometimes unabashedly emotional. So many contemporary poets feel restrained by some sort of unwritten rule of decorum to be clinical in their presentation of situations, but these poems don’t shy away from their feelings. But also, these poems can be funny. Sometimes the wit is verbal, sometimes situational. In either case, it’s nice to read a book in which every poem does not feel compelled to be Serious. There are plenty of serious poems in here too, poems of grief, loss, and longing. But seriousness is not the only key this instrument plays in.

Dave Malone lives in West Plains and has published a number of books of poems, each with its own tonal register (or key signature, if I want to push that musical metaphor). If you haven’t run across his work yet, I highly recommend checking it out.

Counting Time

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Not long ago, I had the opportunity to take a walk in one of my favorite places, the Gans Creek Wild Area in Rock Bridge State Park, just south of Columbia (sample landscape pictured above).

As usual, I quickly lost track of time. One of the great pleasures of walking in the woods is the sense of being freed from ordinary time, of entering a different kind of clock, one in which things are not measured by hours or minutes. Instead, I think of tasks to be accomplished, distances to travel. The answer to the question “How much longer do I have?” is not necessarily a half hour or forty-five minutes, but “Up a little rise, along the ridge for a half mile, and then up the last steep slope.” Float trips are similar. Time becomes, if not irrelevant, at least a secondary thing to think about.

I remember reading a book a few years ago that noted the shift that took place in the Ozarks when the economy moved from subsistence farming to manufacturing and larger farm operations. Instead of the rhythm of the seasons governing people’s lives, the clock took precedence. Many people had difficulty adjusting to the change in how life was ordered, employing various strategies of resistance against the tyranny of the clock.

Even though I’m officially “retired” from my day job, I still live a pretty ordered existence, as if an invisible timekeeper somewhere is punching me in and clocking me out. But I do love those occasions when I can stop counting time and simply live in the eternal moment.

Favorite Ozarks Places – 20

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Amidon Memorial Conservation Area, Missouri

When I was a kid, our parents would occasionally take my brother and me to what we called the “Castor River swimming hole” or alternatively, the “Castor River Shut-Ins.” Mom, as usual, fretted about our safety, while we boys just enjoyed the sweep of water through the tight passages of rock, bouncing downstream to where Dad waited to catch us.

There are a couple of swimming holes on the upper Castor, a river that receives much less attention than its more famous cousins to the west, and I honestly can’t remember which one we visited in my childhood. But one of the most unexpectedly beautiful places in the Ozarks is what is now the Amidon Memorial Conservation Area in northeast Madison County.

If you’ve visited Elephant Rocks, you know the remarkable pink granite that crops up in places across Iron, St. Francois, and Madison counties. At Amidon, that pink is lighter than at other places, far more sculpted, and shaped by the flow of water into a remarkable display.

Why doesn’t the Castor get more attention? It’s shorter, for one thing, and it quickly traverses from dramatic shut-ins to a relatively uninteresting, muddy stream, with lots of debris and agricultural runoff. But for several stretches, it’s as beautiful as anywhere in the Ozarks. Its lack of fame means that you’ll probably have the place almost to yourself, although do note that most of the ownership along the Castor is private. So you have to look for access points. The pink granite is unearthly in its strange beauty, and the flooding and debris has created a rich alluvium that lends to the growth of wildflowers in abundance.

I don’t think I’d let my kids bounce down through the shut-ins, though, unless the water was pretty low.

Another Good Year – Part 2

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I mentioned earlier this month that the year was off to an excellent start in Ozarks writing. This book is not technically an “Ozarks” book, but its author, John Mort, grew up in southern Missouri and has written several fine novels and story collections based in the Ozarks. So, close enough.

Oklahoma Odyssey is, if you’re looking for a descriptive category, a novel of the West. It mainly takes place in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma in the time leading up to the Oklahoma Land Run of 1893, with briefer forays to Kansas City and elsewhere. But it toys with and re-imagines the stock characters and situations of the Western genre. We have a hero, love interest, sidekick, and villain, but none of these people turn out to be what you would expect. There’s a killing and a call for revenge, but again, don’t expect it to go the way you have been conditioned by decades of Westerns.

I have a complete review of Oklahoma Odyssey coming out in the next edition of OzarksWatch magazine, so I’ll leave my discussion for there. If you’re not already a subscriber to OzarksWatch, what are you waiting for? But for now, I’ll just say that this novel is a real gem, with rich characterization, historical insight, and a compelling story.

Here’s a purchase link.

Willie of Winsbury

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From time to time, a Child ballad gets stuck in my head. Lately it’s been “Willie of Winsbury,” Child 100, aka “Willie o’ Winsbury.” Here’s a beautiful version of the song by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer.

Great ballads always have surprises, and this one is full of them. It opens like this:

The king has been a prisoner, and a prisoner long in Spain,

And Willie of the Winsbury has lain long with his daughter Jane.

Talk about narrative economy! Openings don’t get much faster than that. As is always the case in old ballads, the sexual misbehavior has led to its inevitable result. Although Jane denies it, her father resorts to an extraordinarily cruel method of getting to the truth:

Take off, take off, your robe and gown, stand naked on the stone,

That I might see you by your shape if you be a maiden or none.

He forces the identity of her lover from her and calls to his serving men, for Willie of the Winsbury is no duke, gentleman, or man of wealth. So hanged he must be.

But when Willie is brought before the king, surprise number one. He’s gorgeous! The king is ravished by his beauty, and declares that if he were a woman, he would have taken Willie to bed too. In an over-the-top fit of forgiveness, he asks Willie to marry Jane and promises that he will be the heir to his lands.

Surprise number two: Willie agrees to marry Jane, but says,

But I’ll not be the lord of any man, I’ll not be the heir to your lands.

And in a surprise ending to the song,

He’s lifted her up on a milk-white steed, and himself on a dappled gray,

He has made her the lady of as much land as she can ride in a long summer’s day.

Who is this Willie of Winsbury, this mystery man who barely escapes hanging but then rejects the king’s offer because he’s apparently even greater? Some scholars think the song is a fictionalized version of the courtship of James V of Scotland and Madeline of Valois, the daughter of the king of France. James had traveled to France in 1536 in order to marry the king’s other daughter, Mary, but ended up taking Madeline home instead. As for myself, though, I’m perfectly happy with Willie being a mysterious figure who captivates everyone he meets, and who never does what one expects him to do.

For those who like their traditional ballads sung in a more traditional dialect, here’s the version of “Willie O’ Winsbury” sung by the wonderful Irish balladeer Andy Irvine when he was with the group Sweeney’s Men.

Another Good Year

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It has already been another good year for writing from the Ozarks, and it’s only March. I have several books that I plan to write about in the coming days, but a good place to start is with this one, the third volume of Brooks Blevins’ History of the Ozarks.

Subtitled “The Ozarkers,” this volume takes us into the late 20th century, what we might call the modern history of the Ozarks. And there’s something in it for everyone.

The book opens with the legendary 1934 contretemps between Springfield businessman John T. Woodruff and folklorist Vance Randolph at the first-ever regional folk festival in the Ozarks, during which Woodruff accused Randolph and his associates of tarnishing the image of the Ozarks with their descriptions of Ozarkers as ignorant hillbillies, superstitious, barefoot moonshiners who idled away their days waiting for the next opportunity to coon hunt. The fact that Randolph’s portrayal came from actual interviews with actual Ozarkers, of course, was a difficulty to this accusation. But the conflict presages and sets the theme for the book: the divide between the modern Ozarks as perceived and the modern Ozarks as lived.

The “real” Ozarks have never been a place as simple as Dogpatch, U.S.A., and we all know that. This book shows just how complicated the history of the real Ozarks has been, with waves of immigration and internal migration, a constantly shifting economy based on the extractive industries of mining, farming, and timber, and an array of conflicting perceptions both from outside and within. So much has happened within the last century in the Ozarks that the book has to move swiftly from incident to incident and theme to theme, and sometimes I wished for it to slow down and devote more time to the things I am interested in the most; but such is the nature of historical writing. The book clocks in at about 300 pages and could easily have been three times that long, and still wouldn’t have covered everything.

One section I especially appreciated was its careful delineation of the changing agricultural economy. When I was a kid growing up in Madison and Reynolds counties, the typical farm was very much “mixed agriculture”: a pen full of hogs, a field with a few dozen cattle, a chickenhouse, maybe some row crops in the bottomland, even sometimes a specialty crop like sorghum or ducks. That model has nearly disappeared these days, replaced by farms that are strictly pasture-and-cattle or rows of giant chicken or turkey sheds (or occasionally, feeder pig operations) with the farm operator in a feudal contract with one of the big poultry juggernauts. Dairy farming has nearly disappeared. The societal impacts of these economic changes are hard to see at first, but when you consider them carefully, one obvious implication is that it becomes harder and harder to maintain a self-sufficient life in the remoter regions as farming becomes more dependent on connections to the larger industrial-agriculture machine. Thus rural counties empty out while population centers remain viable. In addition, these large operations, which seek to minimize labor costs through mechanization, rely on low-skill immigrant populations for their workers, leading to the pockets of impoverished immigrants we see in places like Noel and Aurora. The ripple effects of this demographic shift are hard to miss.

A History of the Ozarks: Volume 3 is now resting on my shelf alongside the other two volumes, but I don’t expect it to stay there long. It’s going to be taken down again and again as I re-read its accounts of Ozark historical events and refresh my understanding of the region’s rich, troubled, and treasured history.

Power and Principle

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(This post is adapted from a talk I gave on February 20 to the Quincy, Illinois, Unitarian Church.)

In 1857, Frederick Douglass gave a speech at a commemoration in Canandigua, New York, of the abolition of slavery in Britain’s West Indies colonies. Slavery had been abolished in the West Indies twenty-three years earlier, and abolitionists in the United States often looked to that campaign for inspiration and lessons, and used it as evidence that American slavery could and would also be abolished someday.

          But 1857 was a dark year for the abolitionist movement. The Fugitive Slave Law, passed by Congress in 1850, had survived court challenges and had made escape from slavery extremely difficult. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in 1854, had legalized the expansion of slavery into the Western territories and led directly to the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict. And the Dred Scott decision had been handed down earlier that year, depriving enslaved persons of any Constitutional protection. So the United States appeared to be heading in the opposite direction from Great Britain, toward the permanent establishment of slavery and few legal means of combatting it.

          So when Frederick Douglass stood up to speak at a ceremony celebrating slavery’s abolition in a different country than his own, you can imagine that such a celebration might feel rather hollow. And perhaps you can see why he felt the need to speak in unsparing terms.

          About halfway through his remarks, Douglass says:

“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”

          The radicalism of Douglass’ thoughts here is pretty apparent, but in case we missed his point, he goes on in the speech to do a remarkable thing. He cites a number of people whom he identifies as heroes in the fight against slavery, and they are not the usual list. First up is Margaret Garner, who in his words, “plunge[d] a knife into the bosom of her infant to save it from the hell of our Christian slavery.” The incident, which caused a great stir in the 1850s as Garner was put on trial for murder, served as the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, currently the subject of censorship attempts at various schools around the country. Also on Douglass’ list is Joseph Cinqué, the leader of the rebellion aboard the slave ship Amistad, and the early rebellion leader Nat Turner. Douglass’ enumeration includes a number of other enslaved people who either killed or were killed in their pursuit of freedom. Not a peaceful protestor among them.

          His point couldn’t be clearer. Progress is accomplished, he is telling us, by people who are confrontational, who are difficult, who are even kind of scary. Power concedes nothing without a demand. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. Martin Luther King deliberately echoed Douglass’ words in his famous ”Letter from Birmingham Jail,” when he wrote, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” although King took the path of nonviolence rather than Douglass’ approach, which I suppose we could call the any-means-necessary view. This is not a message I think most of us want to hear. It’s a call to make trouble, to be trouble. And if there’s anything in this world I dislike and try to avoid, it’s making trouble.

          I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this tension. I believe deeply in the goals of social justice, equality, and progress. But by upbringing and temperament I try to get along with people. I avoid conflict, and I put a premium on being amiable and accommodating. So I find myself wondering if there’s any way to reconcile these two conflicting tendencies.

          This question leads me to the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

          It seems to me that the relevant principle to consider here is the second one, the call for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. If that’s the goal, the question is how to reach that goal. Because it’s all too clear that justice, equity, and compassion in human relations are in short supply nowadays. They always have been, and it’s not my place to say whether the “arc of history,” as King called it, is bending upward or downward at the moment. I’d like to imagine that it’s bending toward justice, but I don’t have that degree of confidence. But what I can say is that if you want to increase justice, equity, and compassion, you need to be able to exert power.

          The seven principles are reticent on how power should be attained and used, other than that we are supposed to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and presumably that includes people we consider distasteful or wrong. Even oppressors have inherent worth and dignity, I suppose. And the exercise of power should be done democratically, according to Principle 5. In an ideal political world, these general guidelines would work just fine. But in the world as it is, they seem to put us at a disadvantage in the effort to gain power, treating people respectfully and reasonably even if they are neither reasonable nor respectful. King gets around that dilemma by relying on patience and numbers. Present setbacks can always be seen in the arc of history as temporary things. And our own setbacks and victories fade when we see them as part of a larger movement. I may not be able to make a difference in the world, but perhaps hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people acting like me might.

          But these are big, abstract thoughts, and big abstract thoughts don’t help a person much in moments of decision or daily challenge. What I need at such moments is a reliable sense of how to act, how to behave when I want to influence people. How to gain and maintain power, in short, without violating my UU principles.

          Anyone thinking about power has to consider Machiavelli. We don’t like to think that Machiavelli, with his famous statement that “the end justifies the means,” would be a proper model for our behavior. But we do have things to learn from Machiavelli. Remember that he began that passage by observing that if everyone was good, then it would be reasonable and logical to act in good faith at all times and to rely on mutual respect and goodness. But, Machiavelli says, people are not good. In fact, people cannot be trusted to do the right thing. So to act as if they will is to invite destruction.

          Some of the statements attributed to Jesus appear to do just that. Love your enemies. Do good to them that hate you. When I hear these words, I have to admit, my first reaction is, “Is he kidding?” How could a person hope to accomplish anything in the world with that approach? I don’t want to get into the theological swamps here, so I’ll just say that I am not saintly enough to live up to those admonitions. On a good day, I can be respectful and decent to my enemies, but that’s as far as I can go.

          So to circle around to the original question again. How to gain and use power ethically, within the framework of freedom and responsibility. I pondered this question for a couple of days until I realized I was making a fundamental error.

          If you’re from my generation, you probably remember the Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum, whose book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was a huge cultural phenomenon in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. If I were ever to write a version of that book, it would probably be titled, “Everything I Need to Know I Taught in Freshman Speech Class.” For a good 30 years at various colleges, I taught some version of freshman speech, a class that typically includes some basic elements of interpersonal communication and group communication as well as public speaking. And I remembered that in our group communication unit, we always did a section on power.

          Power, simply defined, is your ability to get other people to do what you want. When you put it in those simple terms, you realize fairly quickly that there are a lot of different kinds of power. What Frederick Douglass was talking about is coercive power, the ability to make people follow your desires through fear of the consequences if they don’t. When the state trooper asks to see your driver’s license, you produce it, not because you share common goals, but because refusing could put you in a world of trouble. But in daily life, we don’t respond to, or use, coercive power that often. More often, we use other forms of power.

          How do you get somebody to do what you want? I recall that when I worked at Columbia College, I had a co-worker who always got people to do things her way. What was her secret? Well, if you didn’t agree to do things her way, she would bite your head off, question your integrity, bombard you with scathing e-mails, and complain to the higher-ups. And I don’t even want to tell you how she treated her students. She was someone who took to heart Machiavelli’s precept that it is better to be feared than loved. I suspect many of you have similar stories of workplace ill behavior. People who exert power, not respectfully or responsibly, but through intimidation and bullying, or manipulation and emotional plays.

          But other levers of power are also available to us. I am reminded of the Stephen Spender poem that is in the Unitarian hymnal: “I think continually of those who were truly great.”

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.        

By “truly great,” Spender means people who are true to themselves, who act with imagination and integrity. These are the people he thinks of continually and tries to emulate. Each of us has our own personal library of those who were truly great in our lives, people whose example we try to live up to. That’s another kind of power, the power to affect people’s behavior by presenting them with a model to shape their decisions on.

          And finally, if you want people to act in a particular way, the highest and best form of power is to get them to agree with you. Nowadays we use the word “rhetoric” pejoratively, as if there’s something suspicious about it, but rhetoric has traditionally been seen through the centuries as the art of persuasion. A skilled rhetorician is someone who uses the power of persuasion to get people to see things their way, and thus exerts influence by creating common consent.

          We may despair of such a concept nowadays, in what has been called the age of disinformation, in which falsehoods and manipulations seem to proliferate faster than our ability to stamp them out. But I am not giving up hope on that form of power. I think it’s ultimately the answer to our dilemma, no matter how unsatisfying it may be in the short term. If we educate our fellow citizens, our neighbors, our co-workers, and especially our children, in the ways of recognizing faulty logic and manipulative argument, we inoculate them against the misuses of power that we see all around. If we provide them with an example of how to behave in our dealings with others, we give them support when they have to make those kinds of decisions. And if we rely on reason and moral persuasion when we argue, we can follow our UU principles while at the same time making the kind of demands on power that are necessary for change.

Missouri History Update

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Arthur Rothstein, Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, New Madrid County, Missouri. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress), LC-USF33- 002919-M3 [P&P] LOT 1207.

About three and a half years ago, I wrote on this blog about the 1939 tenant farmers’ strike in the Missouri Bootheel, an event that I had not heard about until that moment. It reminded me just how much history is lost or overlooked, especially history that the dominant social group finds unpleasant. Since that time, I’ve learned a bit more.

One thing that I knew then, but didn’t fully grasp, was the extent to which the tenant farmers’ dispossession was the result of Federal policy. The Roosevelt administration was trying to prop up agricultural prices to rescue farmers, who had been going broke by the hundreds of thousands for many years by then. One of the tools they were using in this effort was direct support payments, paying farmers to take land out of production in order to increase prices. But a side-effect of this policy was that once farmers took their land out of production, they no longer needed workers. This doesn’t make the farmers any less culpable or racist in their attitudes, but it does help explain their motivation.

My friend Trevor Harris, who creates the Mo’ Curious podcast sponsored by Missouri Life, got interested in this topic and has been down in the Bootheel making recordings. I’m eager to find out what he obtained, and to hear the podcast that will surely come out of it.

In the meantime, I’ve learned that a documentary film was made in 1999 about the strike, entitled Oh Freedom After While. If your library allows you access to Kanopy, you can view it on that platform. It’s also viewable on Vimeo.

Arthur Rothstein, Evicted sharecropper, New Madrid County, Missouri. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress), LC-USF33-002921-M1 (b&w film nitrate neg.) LC-DIG-fsa-8a10381 (digital file from original neg.)

Favorite Ozarks Books – 16

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I shouldn’t really call The Moonflower Vine an Ozarks book, as it is set in the western Missouri prairie, in a fictionalized version of the town of Nevada, where Jetta Carleton grew up. (If you want to get a sense of this region, you should look at Leland Payton’s marvelous book of photographs, Ozark-Prairie Border.) But a couple of the major characters of the book spend considerable time in the Ozarks, and since it’s a border region I’ll expand my “Ozarks books” phrase a little to include this one.

The Moonflower Vine was first published in 1962 and was a big hit, making the bestseller list, some important book clubs, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume. Then, as books do, it faded from attention. It became one of those secret favorites, passed from enthusiast to enthusiast, until Harper Perennial brought out a new edition in 2009 with a robust introduction from Jane Smiley. That new edition helped return the book to some deserved prominence.

The novel is divided into six sections, one for each of the major characters. It begins in the more-or-less contemporary time period to its publication, then dips into the past with the next four sections, finally returning to the present at the end. So its structure is a bit challenging, but not overwhelmingly so.

But what makes The Moonflower Vine so memorable is its rich, surprising characterization. The novel’s six main characters are a rural couple and their four daughters, all of whom go through various troubles and all of whom are revealed, over time, to have secrets they are keeping from the rest of the family. The characters resist stereotyping, revealing ever-deepening layers of feeling, aspiration, frustration, and despair. It’s an immensely humane novel that refuses to excuse its characters even as it comprehends them. And for a book that made it into the Reader’s Digest condensations, it’s surprisingly frank about sexual desire. (I suspect they condensed that part right out and left the “local color” in.)

What I ultimately take away from The Moonflower Vine, though, is a deeply forgiving spirit. By one definition or another, all the characters fail. But they are never portrayed as failures. They are flawed creatures, like us all, who are doing their best with what has been handed to them. And sometimes their best is not very good. They do stupid things, they suppress their feelings, they misunderstand. And yet I found myself drawn to them, and drawn also to this landscape by Carleton’s vivid power of description. She sees this world in an intense and careful way. Some people might see this book as an exercise in nostalgia, but I think that misses its precise and comprehensive view of human nature.

Jetta Carleton