~ News, announcements, events, and ruminations about my books, including Slant of Light, This Old World, The Language of Trees, and Scattered Lights, and about creativity, fiction, Missouri, the Ozarks, and anything else that strikes my fancy
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 Odysseyis, 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.
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.
I read Walden about once a year, or at least dip into it for refreshment. Lately I’ve been reading the “winter” chapters: “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” “Winter Animals,” and “The Pond in Winter.” These are much quieter chapters than the showy, occasionally verbally extravagant flourishes of “Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” and they tend to get overlooked, I think. But I’m appreciating them anew this time around.
The “former inhabitants” section is a quiet catalogue of the abandoned houses and waste places Thoreau encounters as he walks around his Concord neighborhood, and a recollection of what he knows about the families who once lived there – which in some cases is very little. One might wonder what he’s up to with this melancholy inventory. I wondered, too, until I noticed, this time around, that the people he memorializes are almost all Black, poor, or both. All that is left of their life’s labor is an overgrown hummock, a portion of a cellar wall, a vague tale of their occupation.
This section of the book is a meditation on disappearance and loss, and it’s especially telling that this meditation focuses on the poor. Thoreau approaches their stories with his usual wry humor. In one instance he tells of a comical adventure with the volunteer fire department, when they respond to an alarm and mistakenly think the fire is some distance away, when it actually turns out to be an abandoned hut just down the road. But that scene is followed by the poignant description of the sole remaining member of that hut’s last family, who returns to the home of his childhood and pokes through the ashes for any remnant of his family’s existence, turning up only the hook from which the well-dipper was fastened. “I felt it,” Thoreau writes, “and still remark it almost daily in my walks, for by it hangs the history of a family.”
Disappearance, withdrawal, diminishment. These chapters are full of such things. The visitors are few; the animals go into hiding; even the pond itself, frozen over, is sawn into blocks and carried away, ice to cool the beverages of the privileged in distant cities. But this condition also yields new perspectives. Thoreau takes advantage of the winter to go out on the ice of the pond and observe, to take measurements and to peer to the bottom, activities that would be impossible during warmer times.
Winter brings clarity as the essential parts are revealed. There is melancholy in this, of course, but also opportunity for a deepened understanding. And of course, the chapter that follows “The Pond in Winter” is “Spring.”
I am currently floating (metaphorically) because the University of Missouri alumni magazine just published a long essay I wrote about floating (literally). I love taking float trips on Ozark streams and tried to convey some of the feeling of those experiences.
They also assigned a writer and photographer to do a profile of me to accompany the essay. Tony Rehagen and Nic Benner both did wonderful jobs.
Stephen Dunn passed away a few days ago at the age of 82. He was one of my absolute favorite poets. His specialty was seeing meaning in the smallest of things, and his work had immense wit that was also quite expansive. His poems would often take on bigger and bigger meanings as they went along, yet they always stayed grounded in the real and specific. He had such a marvelous way of seeing!
In his honor, here’s his poem “Testimony,” which was published in the New Yorker not quite ten years ago.
In honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday, or at least his purported birthday, here’s the opening of my short story, “Why Miss Elizabeth Never Joined the Shakespeare Club.”
They found Miss Elizabeth dead this morning, upright in her velvet Queen Anne chair, hands folded. When I heard the news, I was in the same pose; I had fallen asleep while crocheting, as I am prone to do in the afternoons nowadays, and the telephone frightened me. Unexpected phone calls always bring thoughts of death. My first reaction:
Now I am the only one left who knows Miss Elizabeth’s story. My second reaction: Perhaps I am the only one to whom it has meaning.
You can read the rest of the story in my collection, Scattered Lights. If you already own the collection, thank you! And be sure to leave a review on your favorite book-review website.
I ordered this new collection of short stories from the University of Notre Dame Press as soon as I saw the announcement, and for a couple of reasons. It was the second book in a row from a Missouri author to win the press’s Sullivan Prize, so I felt a little regional pride. And the previous year’s prizewinner, John Mort’s Down Along the Piney, was such a pleasure that I had developed some trust in the editors’ judgment.
That trust was justified. R. M. Kinder’s A Common Person and Other Storiesis a rich and rewarding book. The seventeen stories in its 200 pages have a unified, guiding sensibility to them, but each is distinctive in its own way, and some challenge our notion of what counts as a “story.” It’s a satisfying collection, with stories to re-read and find multiple rewards from.
Kinder’s strength is her handling of point of view, the flowing, sometimes-random way our thoughts move from one idea to the next. The characters in her stories think in the kind of associational bursts of connection we’re all familiar with, from specific observation to vast abstraction, from hope to despair in the flick of an insight, and then back to hope again. Their feelings and responses are true and precisely portrayed.
There’s a proliferation of animals in these stories, too, mostly dogs but some others as well. I don’t know anything about Kinder’s personal habits, but certainly the stories suggest that for this author, the way a person interacts with animals is an indicator of essential character. The dogs have lives and personalities in the stories that are as carefully drawn as the humans, sometimes.
Sometimes the point of view will float from character to character within a story, the sort of thing we warn our beginning students against but a beautiful tool in the hands of a pro. The effect is that of a drifting consciousness, above but not detached from the thoughts of the individual characters, allowing us to glimpse multiple trains of thought and emotion even as the story progresses along a single line of action. This technique gives some of the stories a dreamlike quality, not that actual dreams are happening (although they sometimes do) but because we move from mind to mind with such swiftness and ease. And sometimes the collective consciousness of the community speaks through the voice of narrator.
If you’re a lover of the short story, this collection is worth tracking down and putting on your shelf.
I can hardly say enough about how delighted I was last night when I received word that my short story collection had been named as one of ten finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction for 2021. The happy vibe is still in full effect this morning, and I find myself reflecting on this whole writing endeavor.
Writers are a funny bunch. It’s the most solitary art form of all, and somebody can be working on a single project for years. You have to distance yourself from the rewards of immediate gratification, and in fact you’ll hear a lot of writers declare that they get sufficient reward from the work itself. I say that myself from time to time.
But at the same time, writers as a group tend to be highly insecure, often neurotically so, and every little bit of recognition is lapped up like sweet cream. So we hold contests and conferences, and we monitor sales reports, even as we announce that such things don’t really matter. But of course they do matter, even if it’s only inside our heads.
So today I celebrate, and tomorrow I get back to work.
I’ve made my fondness for old hymns known before. I grew up with them, and even today an old hymn will get stuck in my head for days at a time.
Such is the case with “Come, Thou Fount,” one of the hymns that was an evergreen favorite in my childhood church, and one of those that has maintained a surprising popularity among contemporary pop Christian groups and singers, although as usual they can’t keep from tweaking it to make it more “modern,” adding choruses or smoothing out the lyrics to suit today’s sensibilities.
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” to give its full title, was written in the mid-1700s by a 22-year-old English pastor and hymnodist named Robert Robinson. Like most hymns of the era, it came unattached to a particular tune. The tune we associate it with the most is an American tune of somewhat obscure origin called “Nettleton,” named after the Connecticut evangelist and composer Asahel Nettleton, who may or may not have written it. The tune has a kind of thumping, straightforward tread that is one reason it sticks in the mind so easily: de de BUMP BUMP, de de BUMP BUMP, and so forth.
But what draws me to “Come, Thou Fount” are its lyrics. They’re kind of a mishmash, really, but in such interesting ways. Take the first lines. “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise. Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise.” This gives us a hint of what we’re in for. God is a fountain, and also a kind of cosmic piano tuner. The two images are intermingled through the verse. One might say Robinson is mixing his metaphors here, or that this tumbled mix is just what he’s aiming for, in the sense that God is too big to be contained in a single metaphorical framework.
The second verse relies on what to most people today is a very obscure Biblical reference: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, here by Thy great help I’ve come.” But believers in Robinson’s time would have recognized the reference as coming from 1 Samuel, in a verse in which Samuel erects a monument stone at the site of a victory over the Philistines. Samuel calls it “Stone of Help,” or Eben-Ezer in the English transliteration of the Hebrew, and the word came to signify a place of victory by divine intervention. The legendary Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta takes its name from this passage, as do thousands of other “Ebenezer” churches around the country. So the hymn is a victory paean.
But no, it’s not, for a couple of verses later come an amazing set of lines. “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.” The grace of God is phrased in terms of debt and imprisonment, which in 18th-century England would have been painfully familiar. For Robinson, who was disinherited at age five with ten shillings and sixpence, debt and imprisonment would have been a present concern. And then the desperate plea: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.” It’s easy to imagine the 22-year-old writer, engaged in his own struggles, pouring out this cry. The whole hymn is a tumbling-out of varied figures of speech, tones, and images, following on each other and sometimes weaving together. No wonder people have felt the urge to clean it up a bit for the audiences of their day!
But I like the tangled, almost synesthetic quality of “Come, Thou Fount.” As the tune goes marching along in steady pace, the lyrics are bouncing all over the place. It’s a mixed-up flow of thoughts for mixed-up minds, and I like it just like that.
In 2016, I was honored to be asked to give the keynote at the annual Ozarks Studies Conference in West Plains. The theme of the conference that year was “The Lure of the Ozarks,” so I decided to play on that theme for my talk. My title was “The Lure of the Ozarks: What’s the Bait and Who’s the Fish?”
The good folks at Elder Mountaintook my talk, tweaked it a little, and published it in their most recent issue. As editor Phil Howerton aptly describes the issue, it’s a whopper . . . a double issue of 290 pages.
I’m reprinting a passage from near the opening of my talk below. Literary journals need all the help they can get, so if you’d like to read the whole thing, I encourage you to take a look at the issue’s impressive table of contents here and then use the purchase link here. You won’t regret it!
To speak of the lure of the Ozarks, appropriately enough, is to use the language of the fisherman, and prompts the metaphorical question of who is the fisher and who is the caught. Nowadays our talk about the lure of the Ozarks typically involves tourism, and rightly so, as it has become a mainstay of the Ozarks economy. Certainly tourism is a pretty benign sort of catchery . . . I suppose we could extend the metaphor and call tourism the “catch and release” version of the Ozarks’ lure.
But from the earliest times, people have come to the Ozarks to take away something more tangible. From Pierre Renaud down to the Doe Run Lead Company, the Ozarks have been a source of minerals and ore. The Missouri Lumber and Mining Company and its fellow timber harvesting enterprises did the same thing from the 1880s through the early twentieth century. In a general way, I think you’d have to describe the Ozarks as a kind of internal colony of the United States, a place from which to extract value at the lowest possible cost while returning as little as possible. As David Benac observes in his book Conflict in the Ozarks, a significant component of the Ozarks timber boom consisted of companies seeking to “tame” their workers, to bring them into compliance with the needs of an industrial-age enterprise concerning punctuality, sobriety, and adherence to the concept of “working hours” instead of living their lives by the clock of the seasons. What drew these entrepreneurs and companies to the Ozarks was what they could extract from it, and that’s a facet of this landscape that will never go away. I recall during the years of my childhood that every town in the area had its factory – shoe factories, shirt factories, hat factories, that sort of thing – each one staffed mainly by women paid on a piecework basis, overseen by men. It wasn’t until the advent of the global marketplace that these companies discovered they could find workers elsewhere who were even more impoverished and who had even fewer options than the Ozarkers, and relocated their factories elsewhere. For an industry that needed unskilled workers to perform repetitious tasks, the Ozarks must have seemed like a little slice of heaven for a time.
And then there’s escape, that time-honored lure of the Ozarks. Dad Howitt, the Shepherd of the Hills, came to the Ozarks to escape the noise of the city and the memories of his past, and ever since then one of the dominant themes of Ozarks culture has been that of the mountains as a place of refuge. Trappist monks came here, and the Harmonial Vegetarian Society, and so did Bonnie and Clyde. The hollows overflow with people who have come to the Ozarks for one sort of escape or another, whether it’s from the traffic jams of the city or the long arm of the law. My own experience with these transplants has been overwhelmingly positive. People drawn to the Ozarks from elsewhere bring energy, new ideas, and often a fresh infusion of money to communities that need all three. Unfortunately, the Ozarks’ mind-our-own-business reputation also draws the occasional Frazier Glenn Miller among the retired ad executives seeking a quiet place to meditate beside a stream.