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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.