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I delight in working up talks to give to libraries and civic groups, usually in connection with one of my books. I conduct a great deal of research as I work on a novel, and although that research is not especially systematic or scholarly, I learn a lot about an era and can condense it into an understandable presentation. With Slant of Light, I developed a talk about 19th-century utopian communities; with This Old World, on Missouri during the years after the Civil War.

My new book takes place during the late 1880s, when large commercial interests from the Eastern cities and from St. Louis used the recently-built railroads to extend their reach deep into the Ozarks and set up lumber mills and mines to extract these natural resources. The Ozarks had been logged and mined for centuries, of course, but the industrial scale of this enterprise was new, and the impact—cultural, economic, and environmental—was profound.


Men in a lumberyard near Winona around 1890 (source: National Archives)

So I’m working up a talk about the coming of industry to this hardscrabble, rural landscape, and the changes it wrought on the people. It’s an easy story to cast villains and heroes into, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Rural folk were often their own worst enemies, or willing collaborators, in their conflict with the lumber and mining companies, and those companies themselves were not always the rapacious beasts of our imagining. And the relationship between people and company was not merely conflict or exploitation.

I’ve given talks at so many places by now that I can hardly keep track of them all—libraries, historical societies, Rotary clubs, book clubs, you name it. Every group is a bit different, and no two talks are quite the same.