That Second Cross-Missouri Trail


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Nice piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this morning about the prospects for a second cross-Missouri trail.

Rock Island Trail

It’s easy to see from the Post’s map that this proposed trail would have much less traffic than the Katy. It doesn’t connect or run near major population centers, as the Katy does. So a nay-sayer might complain about the cost-to-people-served ratio.

But the role of state parks is not always to serve the largest possible number. The map also tells us that this trail would give a much more Ozarks-flavored experience than the Katy; it travels through rougher and more forested territory, and thus would appeal more to the backpack-and-tent crowd than the winery-and-B&B types. So it would have fewer hikers and bikers. So what? Is popularity the only value for a park?

Park advocates (including myself, sometimes) have become habituated to using economic arguments to justify them. But the logical trap to that argument is that people who are swayed by economic arguments can always find a more profitable use for parkland. A recent op-ed in the Columbia Daily Tribune from the head of the Conservation Federation of Missouri argued against a proposed bill in the legislature that would allow nonresident landowners to obtain free hunting licenses. His criticism focused on the cost to the Conservation Department – about $500,000 – and included a list of dire consequences if that money were lost. But seriously, $500,000 in a department whose annual budget is nearing $200 million is not much of an argument. I agree that letting nonresident landowners get free hunting licenses is a bad idea, but not just because of the cost. It’s a bad idea because it perverts the original intent of the resident landowner exception, which was to make sure that farmers and other rural residents could hunt on their own property without too many government-imposed hoops to jump through. It’s a bad idea because it opens the door to abuses, with distant landowners finding off-the-books ways to profit from those free licenses. And it’s a bad idea because it’s yet another legislative run at the independence of the Conservation Department. As with the Rock Island Trail park, the value of an independent Conservation Department can’t be measured in dollars and cents. In fact, measuring the accomplishments of government in dollars and cents is the opposite of the point. Government is not supposed to act like a business, where dollar value is the highest priority. Government is supposed to act in the public interest, broadly defined, and serving the widest variety of citizens falls into that category as far as I’m concerned.

Great parks, like great schools and great highways, are valuable on their own merits, not on what they yield economically. And the proposed Rock Island Trail would be a great park.


Interview: Ed Protzel


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Ed Protzel

My fellow historical novelist Ed Protzel has a new book out today. It’s called Honor Among Outcasts, and it follows his very successful The Lies That Bind. Ed and I have mined similar veins in our work (Missouri during the Civil War), although Ed also has a mystery/thriller coming out this year, also. So it was a real pleasure to visit with him recently about his new release. Here’s our interview:

SW: Thanks for joining me on my blog today, Ed! To start out, I wonder if you could tell us a little about your new book, HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS, and how it connects with your previous novel, THE LIES THAT BIND.

EP: Thanks for having me, Steve. In HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS, the second book in my DarkHorse Trilogy, a Southern abolitionist and a group of runaway slaves form a Union colored cavalry regiment in western Missouri, plunging into the most brutal guerilla war in U.S. history. When the abolitionist and his fiancée are accused of spying for the Confederacy, they must face a corrupt military justice system and other obstacles.

Book 1 of the trilogy, THE LIES THAT BIND, centers on the relationship between these men and their efforts to build their own egalitarian plantation in slavery-dominated Mississippi. HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS begins two years after the end of THE LIES THAT BIND, with the group working as contraband laborers attached to the Union army in Missouri. Both books work as stand-alone novels or, even better, in tandem.

SW: What drew you to this time period in the first place?

EP: I read a lot of history, including the Civil War. Being from Missouri, it felt natural to set HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS in that time and place. However, in my research, Missouri’s terrible neighbor-against-neighbor guerrilla war really caught my attention; it said much about the depths to which hatred could debase the most noble cause. Great material for compelling storytelling. Actually, the periods depicted in the three books — antebellum Mississippi, Civil War Missouri, and Reconstruction Mississippi — form an arc through this pivotal time in American history.

Additionally, all of the DarkHorse novels decry violence, with the main characters attempting to avoid being victims of it. With HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS set during a brutal war to resolve slavery, I didn’t want to resolve the myriad conflicts in the book through violence. Instead, I chose to play out the conflicts  through a courtroom, which tied the plots together very neatly. My characters are seeking justice, and what better place for justice to prevail than a courtroom?

Honor Among OutcastsSW: I see that you have a third novel on its way. Did you envision this series as a trilogy, or is that something that just happened along the way?

EP: Yes, I am now happily completing SOMETHING IN MADNESS, the final book in the trilogy. Actually, I imagined the “DarkHorse” concept as a trilogy originally, but had only written the first book (THE LIES THAT BIND). Still I pitched it to my agent as a trilogy, and she pitched the trilogy to the publisher (TouchPoint Press). It’s certainly been an adventure, and I’ll miss the characters once I’m finished, they’re so real to me after all these years.

SW: On a similar note, are you someone who likes to plot your storylines out carefully in advance, or do you discover things as you’re writing? What’s your creative process like?

EP: Actually, I don’t plot out my storylines in advance. Usually, I come up with a strong concept that offers lots of possibilities and powerful themes, plus good main characters that fit the situation. I also come up with an idea for what I think would be a terrific ending, one which will reveal my themes, and I try to keep that ending in mind as I create the story.

As for the rest of it, once I set the story in motion, the characters and the plot take over—that’s the fun of it for me: the reader discovers as I discover. The novel usually morphs into complex plots that gain power as they go forward, with lots of twists and surprises along the way. THE LIES THAT BIND and another novel, futuristic, that was just picked up (THE ANTIQUITIES DEALER) were written like that. Interestingly however, with HONOR I didn’t have an ending in mind when I began, just a number of conflicts and historical events, all of which I had to tie together and resolve. HONOR is quite atypical for me in that respect.

SW: So, you’ve also got a futuristic thriller coming out. I think working on two such disparate genres would make my head spin! Do you see connections between the two types of writing, or do you keep those creative endeavors in separate compartments?

EP: Good question, Steve. Writing THE ANTIQUITIES DEALER was a nice break from writing historical fiction and refreshed me, cleaned out my head. Historical fiction has so many constraints, including language and character viewpoints that can’t be used because they’re too modern, they’d be anachronistic. No such problem with futuristic and sci-fi genres. Further, I wrote THE ANTIQUITIES DEALER first person, which was also liberating, letting me get into the main character’s head in his own words. Also the contemporary setting (St. Louis) is relatively familiar to the reader, mixed with exotic portions in Israel, and partially in Paris and London. And taking place in modern times, with sci-fi-like elements, I was able to really let go and come up with imaginative plot devices that the reader won’t guess. I really enjoyed this genre and have another, EARTH EXCURSIONS, laid out and ready to jump on when I finish SOMETHING IN MADNESS.

SW: Finally, and I know it’s always a little presumptuous asking authors to comment on “themes” and the like, but what are you hoping that readers will take away from HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS?

EP: I hope readers will see a parallel to today’s world and its own set of challenges. I want them to grasp how HONOR AMONG OUTCASTS illustrates that no matter how unjust society may be, love and friendship can enable men and women, regardless of color or class, to stand together and to prevail. And that evil deeds and the lies upon which they depend can and will eventually collapse of their own weight. Think of our country’s advances in civil rights and the women’s movements, gay rights, etc.

Call me an optimist, but history does bend toward justice over time.

Find Ed Protzel at:

Website: http://www.edprotzel




“Where Is Ebbing, Missouri?”


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I am asked this question by my non-Missouri friends, in mixed tones of apprehension and excitement, as if unsure whether they’d like to road-trip there, just to see, or to make sure they never get within fifty miles of the place.

Three Billboards PhotoThe newest contribution to the cultural portrait of Missouri is getting a lot of attention these days, an ironic turn given the fact that it was filmed in the mountains of North Carolina and that it makes little reference to the actual state of Missouri (the word “Missouri” is spoken a few times, but that’s about it). So the “Missouri” of the title is hardly referential, and no, friends, there is no Ebbing.

But the question of whether “Ebbing, Missouri” makes sense in a metaphorical way is something else entirely, and should leave Missourians with some soul-searching to do. A recent column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called attention to the ways in which the real state of Missouri is coming to resemble the town of Ebbing, where racism and violence are commonplace, police routinely brutalize citizens without consequence, and most people seem mired in the kind of attitudes we are familiar with from Cool Hand Luke. The columnist writes wryly, “Tourism commissions throughout the state are serving sides of Pepto-Bismol at their monthly luncheon meetings.”

On the other side of the state, the Kansas City Star is excited by a trend it calls “Ozarks Noir,” citing Three Billboards as the latest in a series that began with Winter’s Bone, progressed through Gone Girl, and most recently manifested itself in the Netflix series Ozark, about which I have already commented. The Star points to thriller novels by Daniel Woodrell, Robert Dunn, and many others as signs of something that looks practically like a movement, although a succession of books about meth-addled killers ain’t exactly the Harlem Renaissance. Dunn is quoted in the article of the appeal of the Ozarks: “Part of it is nostalgia for what is gone. Part of it is atmospheric, a place that is dark and brooding.”

I’ll admit to my share of dark and brooding times, and a recent article in the Springfield News-Leader about the “epidemic of despair” in the Ozarks is enough to make anyone feel a bit on edge. But the Ozarks, and Missouri, are not alone in that predicament. Anywhere education is lower, and poverty is higher, than average is experiencing that epidemic as the have-nots grow increasingly distant from the haves; it’s the great challenge of our time. Ultimately, though, I don’t think Three Billboards is about Missouri, or the South (the film’s writer/director said in an interview that the idea for the story came to him while he was traveling in the Alabama-Georgia-Florida region), or social problems in general. If you’re looking for a movie that represents Missouri, or for that matter even tries to represent Missouri, this isn’t it. The odd notes in the language and the setting signal to natives that the film isn’t “about” Missouri in the way that, say, A River Runs Through It is about Montana.

Much of the argument around Three Billboards focuses on the story arc, in which sympathetic characters act horribly, bad characters act horribly, and nobody seems to get the kind of fate they deserve. Crimes go unpunished. People say awful things. The moral universe seems askew. Critics of the film see a failure of the movie’s moral compass in these unaddressed imbalances, an implied acceptance or endorsement of the characters’ ill behavior; defenders see it as simply reflecting the mess and disorder of life itself. I’ll leave it to you to decide where to come down, but will at least give the movie credit for being more complicated and troubling than most of the movies that get the designation of “quality film” or “important social issue film” these days. (On a side note, I would add that the movie’s unrelenting insistence on having virtually all the significant characters use hard-core profanity, presumably to make them sound “tough” or “contemporary,” is tin-eared, tiresome, and untrue to the actual rhythms of rural speech.)

“Ebbing” is not in Missouri. Perhaps it’s everywhere.



The Pulpwood Queens, Pt. 2


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Author panel at Pulpwood Queens

My author panel at the Pulpwood Queens weekend

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my upcoming trip to the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend. That trip has been completed now, and I’m here to report that it was quite an experience!

The event was held at the Fredonia Hotel in Nacogdoches, Texas, a 1950s-era hotel that has been renovated and modernized. I understand that the hotel hasn’t been open long in its new form, but it was a terrific location! Congratulations to the owners on the job they did, and to the Pulpwoods for choosing it.

The Girlfriend Weekend is a gathering of club members, who hailed from all over the country, and the authors they read. In that respect alone it was a unique event. I’ve never attended an event that had so many avid, enthusiastic readers from such a wide location.

The authors were also a varied group, and I had a good time making new acquaintances. Here are a few photos: The one at the top of the post has Clea Simon, the author of World Enough (she’s a mystery writer), and Reavis Wortham, who writes Texas-based thrillers. At the end is the Pulpwood Queen herself, Kathy Murphy (more about her in a minute). I enjoyed meeting scads of other authors who work in a wide variety of genres: Lorna Landvik (contemporary novels with a humorous twist), Bren McClain (whose debut novel, One Good Mama Bone, was the Queens’ Book of the Year, Tamra Bolton (children’s), Rickey Pittman (children’s ABC books), Romalyn Tilghman, Man Martin, Lisa Wingate (whose latest book, Before We Were Yours, has hit the well-deserved bigtime), Alice Hoffman, and many, many more.

Lorna Landvik

Me with Lorna Landvik, who was the high bidder on my gift basket to raise money for the Pat Conroy Literary Center.

The orchestrator of this event is Kathy Murphy, who is a tireless advocate for books, reading, and literacy. She put the whole event together, co-hosted with author Jamie Ford, and somehow managed to keep this enormous herd of cats pointed in the same direction! It was a delight to meet her. We ended up having dinner together on the night before the event got started, and I was immensely impressed with her verve and zest for the literary experience. There’s a movie in the works about her story, and she’s an author herself!


The Texas Ornithological Society was holding its winter meeting that same weekend, and the hotel staff helpfully directed us. As if the tiaras weren’t enough of a clue!

It was a long drive, but an unforgettable event! I am hugely grateful to have been invited and excited about a return trip!


The Rural Poor


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A friend of mine recently called my attention to this excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, not usually the sort of publication that one associates with societal analysis. But it’s comprehensive, it’s long, and it’s well worth the time.

The subject is the interconnection between poverty, education, and health in a rural Missouri town – Kennett, a town in the Bootheel, the seat of Dunklin County. I don’t remember much about Kennett from my childhood except that I think we drove through it once; it also had an excellent newspaper, the Daily Dunklin Democrat, locally owned, that we read and admired when I was working for the Journal-Banner. (It’s now just the Dunklin Democrat, published three days a week, and kinda-sorta locally owned.)

But Kennett is not the story here; Kennett is merely the example of a story which can be repeated a thousand times across the country. Rural poverty, rural despair, forgotten people whose sense of futility leads to addictive behaviors and self-harm.

What’s remarkable to me is that this story could have been written a hundred years ago. Read Hamlin Garland, read Sarah Orne Jewett, read Sherwood Anderson, and you’ll read these same stories from a different era, with only the superficial details changed. The intractability of rural poverty is a continuing theme in America.

In Sinclair Lewis‘ novels, the warping power of rural despair is portrayed as malevolent, and the smug inhabitants of Gopher Prairie are portrayed as co-conspirators in their own limitation. In the work of someone like Frank Norris, by contrast, the rural folk are helpless victims of larger forces, cruel fate or wicked industrialists.

I think it’s possible to be both villain and victim in one’s own story, as we see in the Chronicle article: people who know the self-destructive consequences of their actions but who do them anyway. The great dilemma of rural poverty is its self-perpetuating quality. Poor folks can’t pay much in taxes, so they are unable to finance the kinds of improvements that would attract industry or a wealthier strata of people; thus the roads grow ever more pitted, the hospitals scratch along with the barest of talent, the educational system strains for the minimum. Putting a dent in rural poverty requires outside intervention. That’s why the state legislators in Missouri (and elsewhere) who turned down the expansion of Medicaid for partisan reasons were so foolish: they were essentially condemning themselves and their own constituents to a cycle of degradation. As we watch the lights of rural hospitals blink out across the state and nation, making those impoverished areas even less desirable to live in (an inevitable consequence of the refusal to expand Medicaid), we can see the future of towns like Kennett. And it’s not pretty.



The Pulpwood Queens


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Earlier this fall, I was delighted to receive an invitation to participate in the annual get-together of The Pulpwood Queens, an event they call Girlfriend Weekend. I’ve been aware of the Queens for years, after reading an article about them in Newsweek. So when I got the invitation, I said yes without a moment’s hesitation.

For those who haven’t heard of them before, the Pulpwood Queens are an organization of book clubs, founded in 2000 by Kathy Murphy. You can read about her inspiring story here. At the Girlfriend Weekend, the Queens dress outrageously, wear tiaras, and dance the night away. But more important, they share their love of books! They talk books, chat with authors, and celebrate the writer-reader partnership. These folks love books. They are a Reading Nation, as Kathy Murphy calls them.

I’m excited to head for the Girlfriend Weekend next month. And despite the name, the Queens also welcome men — “Timber Guys” is the designated term. It’s not too late to join the fun, so if you’re looking for a mid-January getaway, head to Nacogdoches, Texas, in the heart of pulpwood country.





Favorite Ozarks Books – 9


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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.

An Indispensable Book


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James Fork cover

Readers of books on Ozarks culture and geography are probably familiar with Leland and Crystal Payton, whose earlier works, Damming the Osage, Mystery of the Irish Wilderness, The Beautiful and Enduring Ozarks, and others, explore elements of the Ozark experience in a reflective and sympathetic though unromanticized way.

Now the Paytons are out with a new book, James Fork of the White: Transformation of an Ozark River, which treats the James Fork (or James River, depending on your choice of nomenclature) much as Damming the Osage dealt with its river: exploring its culture, its notable inhabitants, its controversies, its geography and hydrology, its history, and ultimately its submersion into a manmade lake, in this case Table Rock Lake, which swallowed up many miles of what had been one of Missouri’s great float streams. The James gets less attention than other Ozarks rivers; it doesn’t have the national recognition of the Buffalo, Current, or Eleven Point, nor the long sinuous might of the Osage. But the stories gathered from along the James, and the variety of its topography as it flows west from near Seymour, skirts the southern edge of Springfield, then abruptly heads south through Galena to its meeting with the lake near Kimberling City, make for a book that should be on the shelf of anyone with an interest in the Ozarks, its streams, or its people.

James Fork of the White is an oversized book, 352 pages with full-color illustrations from start to finish. Many of the illustrations are photographs by Leland Payton, whose work has documented the Ozarks for decades. Payton’s photographic gaze is contemplative, sometimes wry, and often focused on the human artifacts that have marked the landscape over the generations: old bridges, buildings, the remnants of milldams and springhouses, signs, and sometimes (though not insistently) an actual human. The overlook-at-sunset-in-autumn photo is not to be found – or if found, is likely to be a tad off kilter. Just as valuable in the illustrations are the vast numbers of historical images the Paytons have collected, including postcards, maps, clippings, pamphlets, labels, and other ephemera. Taken together, the historic images and the contemporary photographs create a rich visual portrait of the James River watershed.

The text of the book, as with Damming the Osage, consists of brief vignettes about people, incidents, and landscapes within the region, grouped together into chapters that converge on a broader topic: the geography of the region, the upper river, the Springfield section, and the famous float trip stretch from Galena to Branson, for example. Each chapter covers a number of topics within that broad subject area, each typically taking two to four pages before moving on. Like the images, the text covers an immense variety of subjects. There were some I was dimly aware of, some I was familiar with, and many, many that I’d never heard of before. The Paytons, who live in Springfield, have made this river a particular project of documentation, and this book covers everything from forgotten industries and settlements to recent controversies over pollution and development.

I found the saga of the creation of Table Rock Dam and its lake particularly interesting. I suspect I am not alone in assuming that Table Rock originated in the wave of flood control public works projects of the mid-twentieth century, part of the “big dam foolishness” chronicled in Elmer T. Peterson’s book of the same name, but I was surprised to learn that the dam had its roots much farther back. The book details the plans of multiple entrepreneurs to dam the James as early as 1908, plans which were thwarted and resuscitated over the decades as the winds of politics and economics shifted. James Fork of the White treats the creation of Table Rock Lake with evenhanded understanding. The lake has brought immense economic development to Branson and the surrounding area, but that development came at the cost of the permanent inundation of hundreds of miles of valleys, farmland, and settlements. The James Fork’s legendary Galena-to-Branson float, itself a tourist attraction in its own right, was lost to the more mechanized allure of deep flat water, stocked trout, and big bass fishing.

James Fork of the White is a book I will return to again and again, both for the richness of its images and for the variety of its information. For residents of Springfield and the White River valley, and for anyone interested in Ozarks history and culture, this is an indispensable book.

The Historical and the Utopian


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Koreshan city plan

The visionary plan of the Koreshan settlement near Fort Myers, Florida.

The Historical Novels Review recently published a piece I wrote about historical novelists who write about utopian communities or similar subjects. I’m working on a longer article, but for HNR, I had a tight word limit, so I confined myself mainly to an interview with fellow novelist T. C. Boyle.

Here’s the article as it appeared in HNR. By the way, they also have a review of The Language of Trees, which you can read here.

The list of historical novels grows ever longer, as does the list of utopian (nowadays, more likely dystopian) novels. Yet few novels occupy places on both; the historical and the utopian seem to be antithetical impulses. Although utopias fascinate historians and sociologists, they pose narrative challenges that may help explain why few historical novelists have entered this territory.

The classic utopian/dystopian novel is set either in the future or in a geographically indeterminate present. For this reason alone, historical novelists would find this genre inhospitable. A few novels give fictional treatment of actual communities; Terra Ziporyn’s Time’s Fool (2001) portrays a child of the Oneida colony of New York who becomes a zealot for sexual hygiene, highlighting the oppressive potential of utopian idealism. My novels explore similar themes using a community based on the 19th-century Icarians.

Similarly, T. C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville (1993) finds the dark and ridiculous sides of another utopian project, John Harvey Kellogg’s sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, where the health-obsessed sought relief through Kellogg’s regimen of vegetarianism, abstinence, and “colonic irrigation.” The novel also sees the authoritarian shadow behind the utopian impulse, especially with a charismatic leader in charge.

I recently posed a few questions to Boyle about his work:

Wiegenstein: American history and literature seem populated by obsessives, cranks, and con-men. Does the American sensibility lend itself to this tendency?

Boyle: Because we are essentially an anti-authoritarian nation founded by and harboring utopian cultists, we are uniquely susceptible to the leader (con man?) who says, “Give yourselves over to me and my regime and I will purify and sanctify you.”  Examples in my work include The Women (about Frank Lloyd Wright)The Inner Circle (Alfred Kinsey) and The Terranauts (John Allen and the Biosphere II project), and that is only a partial list.

Wiegenstein: In The Road to Wellville, the characters’ preoccupation with diet seems to have contemporary resonance. Do you see a connection to the utopian impulse?

Boyle: Yes, even in the early 1990s when I was writing The Road to Wellville, I was inspired by the parallels between the early health-food advocates and the ones we see now, as well as their food and exercise fads.  Kellogg had splendid ideas–vegetarian diet, no alcohol or tobacco, regular exercise–but what made him ludicrous (and suspicious) in my eyes was his messianic and puritanical bent.  (Incidentally, I loved Alan Parker’s film version, with Anthony Hopkins in the ever-so-slightly menacing role of Dr. Kellogg.)  Further, I do see our obsession with purity of food as part of the utopian impulse, as you put it, and, as The Road to Wellville suggests, what does this have to with but the very saving of our souls (and corporeal beings too) through staving off death?

Wiegenstein: In writing The Road to Wellville, did you feel compelled to stay close to facts, or relatively free to invent?  How did you decide where to draw the line?

Boyle: Fiction has no compulsion to do anything but exist as art.  That said, in all my historical novels, I have been motivated by the oddness of actual events and their correspondence with today (how did we get here?), and so have given the history to you as I have received it.  All the facts of Kellogg’s life are accurate (so too with my portrayal of Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women and Alfred C. Kinsey in The Inner Circle)—I suppose I’d be a historian if I weren’t a novelist.  But the novelist can dig into the brains and p.o.v. of historical figures in the way historians can’t, and that is a great joy for me.  As for your final question regarding the line between invention and fact, my conscience is clear.








My “Playlist”


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Sarah Johnson, whose “Reading the Past” blog is darn near required reading for people interested in historical fiction, was kind enough to let me guest post on it recently, with what I called my “playlist” for The Language of Trees. I’m reprinting that post here, with links to versions of the songs I mention (or in some cases, similar songs if I couldn’t find a good link to the original, or the same song by a different artist.) Enjoy the music, and start following Reading the Past!

Say “historical novel” to someone, and they’re likely to think of swords and swooning, which is why I’ve always been ambivalent about the phrase when it’s applied to my novels. There are no swords and essentially no swooning in my books; instead, I’m interested in everyday people swept up in extraordinary events, and how they cope with the tides of history. These are universal themes, and I’m particularly drawn to the odd tandem of optimism and exploitation that so often characterizes the American experience. So I listen to music that connects me to the struggles and triumphs of ordinary Americans. I immerse myself in period music when I’m writing and editing because doing so helps me recreate the mentality of people of the era, and in addition, it helps me work into the vocabulary of the times. Songs, letters, speeches, and diary entries all help make my diction accurate, but songs in particular help make it poetic. Here are some of the songs on my playlist while I was creating The Language of Trees.

Hard Times Come Again No More – Nanci Griffith

As I mentioned, I’m interested in the struggles of ordinary people and how those struggles reflect the concerns of the time, and few songs of the 19th century do that as well as Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.” People critique Foster’s maudlin and occasionally racist lyrics, but he also came up with songs of genius, and this is one of them. The “pale drooping maiden who toils her life away” is an image all too familiar in the America of that age, especially as the Industrial Revolution spread across the country and the concentration of production in factories, many of which employed young women because of their reliability and low wages, became widespread. As a native of the burgeoning industrial area around Pittsburgh, Foster would have seen this trend firsthand. Of the hundreds of recorded versions, I like Nanci Griffith’s, as she combines a great authenticity of presentation with a modern voice. The song is both old and new in her take.

Lily of the West – Van Colbert

There’s a lot of obsessive and seemingly hopeless love in my latest book, so I found myself listening to traditional music that reflects that thinking, of which there is an abundance. I try to listen only to period music that I can be sure my characters would have known (with a few exceptions, noted below), so songs that were identified in Vance Randolph’s great collection Ozark Folksongs get high priority. One of those, and one of the starkest, is “Lily of the West,” sometimes called “Flora.” There’s an eerie matter-of-factness in the way the narrator describes his fixation with Flora, her casual betrayal, and his murder of her new lover. The minor key and relentless speed of the song add to its effectiveness. Like most American folksongs, it’s an import from the British Isles, in this case Ireland, which helps explain the odd phrasing of some of the verses. Most people know it from the two Chieftains versions of the song, or the early Bob Dylan rendition, but I’m partial to Van Colbert’s unadorned version.

Fair and Tender Ladies – June Carter Cash

Male fixation is a recurring theme in folk music; female endangerment, alas, is another, and its frequent companion. The endangerment can be physical, spiritual, or economic. Perhaps it’s most bluntly stated in the opening lines of “Hard Is the Fortune”: “Hard is the fortune of all womankind; / They’re always controlled, they’re always confined. / Controlled by their parents until they are wives, / Then slaves to their husbands the rest of their lives.” When Josephine angrily tells Bridges in The Language of Trees that his promises are like the stars on a summer’s morning, she’s quoting “Fair and Tender Ladies,” an Appalachian song with antecedents in 17th-century England. I know it had reached the Ozarks, because in the 1940 book Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society a contributor recalls hearing it in 1906. June Carter Cash’s version is appropriately plaintive, and you get to hear her autoharp playing as a bonus. Another lovely version is the one by Bread and Bones.

Little Maggie – Doc Watson

I may be fudging on whether “Little Maggie” was a period piece during the time of the novel (1887-88), but music historians have identified family members of this tune since the late 1800s. So I don’t mind claiming it as a song of the era. It’s a great addition to the “songs of hopeless love” category; I first heard it on a recording by Doc Watson, and that’s still my favorite, although you hear the Stanley Brothers’ version more often. I spent several years trying to get my guitar playing to be as clean and effortless as Doc Watson’s until I realized I didn’t have the talent for it. But that’s all right—few do! I was fortunate to see Doc Watson perform a couple of years before he died, and he had passed the fast licks on to younger members of his band, but his voice was as distinctive as ever.

Mercy O Thou Son of David – Mount Pisgah Primitive Baptist Church congregation

When Barton Braswell starts “The Lord’s Barn” in The Language of Trees, this is the type of hymn I envision them singing: shape-note hymns, created so that even those who could not read music could follow their parts in hymnals such as Southern Harmony, Union Harmony, and The Sacred Harp. This song can be found in William Walker’s Southern Harmony from 1835. Shape-note singing, unearthly and unforgettable, uses a mix-and-match approach to tunes and lyrics; the lyrics for this hymn are from 1779, and although any tune with an 8-7-8-7 meter can be used with them, a frequent choice is a tune called “Restoration,” composed in 1758. My Unitarian-Universalist friends will recognize Restoration as the tune for their hymn “This Old World,” from which I take the title of my second book. Here’s another version with the familiar lyrics of “Come Thou Fount” set to the “Restoration” tune.

The Lakes of Pontchartrain – Andy M. Stewart

In The Language of Trees, Ambrose Gardner sings this song and recollects that his commanders in the Civil War had sometimes banned it and other songs like it as being bad for morale. Such incidents did in fact happen during the war, with the immensely popular “Lorena” a frequent victim of censorship. Sad songs about lost love just don’t pep up the boys for battle. The lyrics are American, but the tune is Scottish, so I like hearing the late great Scottish balladeer Andy M. Stewart do his version of the song.

The Farmer Is the Man – Pete Seeger

As Charley Pettibone brings his prisoner to town in The Language of Trees, he grows concerned by the man’s cursing, which he knows will bother the townsfolk as they ride to the jail. So he sings to drown it out, and the song he chooses is “The Farmer Is the Man,” an anthem of the Grange movement of the Midwest. The growing rural/urban divide of the late 19th Century is an important theme in this book, and “The Farmer Is the Man” illustrates that divide perfectly. The song draws a vivid contrast between the farmer, who is dressed shabbily, whose wagon is broken down, and who “lives on credit till the fall,” and the essential nature of his work. The lyrics are a much more earthy restatement of a song by “the singing evangelist,” Knowles Shaw, who was popular during the 19th century. And who better to deliver a song of agrarian protest than Pete Seeger?

The Arkansas Traveler – Jimmie Driftwood

My grandfather was a square dance fiddler, whose fiddle (with rattlesnake rattle inside) still remains in the family. “The Arkansas Traveler,” which Josephine helps Jimmy Pettibone play in The Language of Trees, is one of the first tunes any fiddler or banjo player would learn. Today you can find a lot of instrumental versions, but few with the song’s mischievous lyrics, which in my mind is a shame. The dynamic between Traveler and Farmer, rube and city slicker, is multilayered and eternal, and after a while we can’t tell who is outfoxing whom. Jimmy Driftwood was a great champion of Ozark folk music, so it’s only appropriate to listen to his version of the song. Another favorite of my grandfather’s was “Rye Whiskey,” and I recall his glee when he would reach the verse in which “Hiccup! Oh golly, how bad I do feel” is repeated six times.

Overture to The Flying Dutchman – London Festival Orchestra

Adolphus Kessler, the visiting geologist in The Language of Trees, is a devotee of opera, and for a German Chicagoan who fancies himself culturally current, that could only mean Wagner. Riots did indeed occasionally break out at Wagner concerts, as Kessler mentions, and although I’m sure there was plenty of aspiration without comprehension in the public’s Wagner frenzy during the late 19th Century, one can’t listen to certain Wagner pieces (such as this early one) without imagining the marvelous sweep of emotions that would have come over an audience upon first hearing this insanely ambitious piece of music.

Angel Band (a.k.a. “My Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast”) – Jimmy Bullard/Beston Barnett

I first came across this song in 1972, when my mom brought home the album “Music of the Ozarks” from the library. It was produced by National Geographic magazine, and I have to say, it felt a little strange to see a national magazine putting out a compilation of music from my own home area. I felt quite exotic for a while. We were old-hymnal people in our church, favoring Fanny J. Crosby and the like, so this kind of unadorned, rather mystical hymn was foreign to me. When the angels gather around the dying narrator, and he declares, “I hear the noise of wings,” a chill comes through me that doesn’t go away for a long while. Most people nowadays are familiar with this song through Ralph Stanley’s version on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, although, alas, it omits the crucial verse with the noise of wings, as does Johnny Cash’s version. Too creepy for some, I suppose. I know nothing about Jimmy Bullard, the singer of that original experience, except that he lived in Timbo, Arkansas, and did a wonderful job on that now-unavailable vinyl LP. In my novel, the hymn is sung the way it’s intended to be—around a deathbed. Since Jimmy Bullard’s version can’t be found, and Ralph Stanley’s version is so familiar, try listening to Beston Barnett, who incredibly enough turns the mournful wail that we’re accustomed to into a joyful, reggae celebration of heaven-going.

Pretty Bird – Hazel Dickens

Staying on the “chills” theme for a moment, anyone who doesn’t get chills listening to Hazel Dickens’ “Pretty Bird” needs—I’m not sure what they need, maybe a heart transplant. This song ties in with the earlier theme of a woman’s longing for freedom, coupled with the aching, mournful delivery of a true Appalachian artist. This is not period music; Dickens composed the song in 1973. But oh my goodness, it rings with the truth of eternity. Listen, and then go buy that “Hazel and Alice” album. You know you want to.

Tam Lin and Clyde’s Water – Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer

I had Mitchell and Hamer’s Child Ballads EP pretty much on continuous play while writing the last four chapters of my novel, for several reasons. First, these two songs in particular have thematic connections. “Clyde’s Water” (which they title as “Clyde Waters”) has the powerful imagery of overwhelming love that struggles against all impediments, human and natural, and in addition it has one of the scariest drowning scenes in all of music. “Tam Lin,” one of the weirdest and most magical of the Child ballads, has a moment that affirms the idea that holding on obsessively to the one you love, against all reason and good sense, might actually work, and instead of ending up with a fierce beast, you find yourself with a shivering, naked man to wrap up and take home. So it has a thread of hope among all the strangeness. Finally, Mitchell and Hamer stay true to the ancient roots of the songs while recasting them in a contemporary way. They capture the old in the new, and that action speaks to me as I seek to do the same in my creative work.