For those of you who are leading book club discussions, here’s a downloadable version of my book club reading guide. Would you like to have me visit with your group in person or by online linkup? Contact me and let me know!
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.
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.
Browsing a used book store a few months ago, I came across this book, which is a 1992 reprint of a 1955 book by Henry C. Thompson, who wrote historical columns for St. Francois county newspapers, was a life member of the State Historical Society of Missouri, and worked for many years as an electrical engineer for the St. Joseph Lead Company. He served as the semi-official historian for the company, and his papers are now housed in the State Historical Society’s collection at Rolla.
Reading Thompson’s book (which is a collection of his columns), I was struck by the cyclical nature of the mining industry. An entrepreneur makes a find or develops a new technology, which permits extraction of a new amount of minerals, and then eventually the mine plays out, leaving devastated workers and land behind to cope as best they can. Here’s what the old St. Joe mine looks like today:
In a brief but striking essay published as a letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books, Wendell Berry makes a key point: “Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy. The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and ‘labor’—has been taken at the lowest possible price.”
It is tempting to view this trend fatalistically, as the consequence of the inexorable march of progress and improvement, a sort of social Darwinism of the landscape. The downtrodden, less fit for the rigors of the modern economy, must either “get big or get out,” in the words of Eisenhower Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, as quoted by Berry. Another way to see it is conspiratorial, the “they’re out to get us” mentality which was played on so successfully by Mr. Trump in last year’s election. I prefer to see the emptying out of Rural America as neither. The immense “agribusinesses” which have come to dominate American farm life, and the companies which remove the resources and which employ the labor (domestic if they’re cheap enough, imported if not), aren’t really out to destroy rural economies. They just don’t care whether they do, as long as the product gets extracted. And if it plays out, they can just move on, leaving behind the remnants of equipment and the people who ran them.
But while the logic of capital is not conspiratorial, neither is it inevitable, although it is immensely powerful. Rural communities across America are looking for ways to reinvent themselves, as I mentioned in an earlier post. The old St. Joe mine, pictured above, is now a state park, where vacationers ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers over the old mine tailings, and where the history of mining in Missouri is detailed in an excellent state historic site.
But to reach the State Historic Site stage, that mine had to reach a state of economic unviability. History’s closest companion is usually sadness, and one can’t think of these vast old enterprises without thinking of the laborers who built and ran them, just as I can never drive by one of the great wind farms now foresting our landscape without thinking of the human farmers who can no longer make a living on that acreage.
The extractive relationship between city and rural is a significant theme in my next novel, The Language of Trees, so perhaps this theme is just on my mind more than usual. But I do hope that our great American rural landscape is due for a cultural renaissance, although I don’t know where that renaissance is going to come from at present.
My publisher, Blank Slate Press, an imprint of the Amphorae Publishing Group, has set the release date for my next novel–September 26! This is an exciting moment for me, as I’ve been working on this book since 2014.
We went around and around for several weeks about the title. I like titles with a lot of literary flair, while the publishers like titles that will catch the eye and sell well from a bookshelf—not that these two concepts are necessarily opposed to each other. But we definitely come from different vantage points; as my editor regularly reminds me, “Writing is an art. Publishing is a business.” But it all worked out in the end, and we have a title that suits us both.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away quite yet. It’s fun to do a little buildup as the months go by, and launch events have not yet been planned. But I can give you a taste: when This Old World ended, it was 1866, and the people of Daybreak had wrestled with the aftermath of the Civil War with varying degrees of success. Some of them carried the wounds of war with them till their end, while others sought to heal by whatever means they could find—revenge, forgiveness, the remaking of self. But now, it’s 1887, the war is a fading memory for most although still fresh in the minds of some, and new challenges face Daybreak. Their agrarian way of life seems outdated as the Industrial Revolution transforms the country. And new people have moved into the valley. Some are sympathetic to the ideals of Daybreak, some seek to profit from them, and some keep their motives to themselves. The children of Slant of Light and This Old World are now in their twenties, creating lives of their own, and not everyone wants to hang on to the prewar utopian ideals that led to the creation of Daybreak. So the stage is set for change in the lives of Charlotte, Charley, and all the inhabitants of Daybreak old and new, change that will be profound, tumultuous, and potentially tragic.
The new book is The Language of Trees.