~ 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
As usual, I quickly lost track of time. One of the great pleasures of walking in the woods is the sense of being freed from ordinary time, of entering a different kind of clock, one in which things are not measured by hours or minutes. Instead, I think of tasks to be accomplished, distances to travel. The answer to the question “How much longer do I have?” is not necessarily a half hour or forty-five minutes, but “Up a little rise, along the ridge for a half mile, and then up the last steep slope.” Float trips are similar. Time becomes, if not irrelevant, at least a secondary thing to think about.
I remember reading a book a few years ago that noted the shift that took place in the Ozarks when the economy moved from subsistence farming to manufacturing and larger farm operations. Instead of the rhythm of the seasons governing people’s lives, the clock took precedence. Many people had difficulty adjusting to the change in how life was ordered, employing various strategies of resistance against the tyranny of the clock.
Even though I’m officially “retired” from my day job, I still live a pretty ordered existence, as if an invisible timekeeper somewhere is punching me in and clocking me out. But I do love those occasions when I can stop counting time and simply live in the eternal moment.
It has already been another good year for writing from the Ozarks, and it’s only March. I have several books that I plan to write about in the coming days, but a good place to start is with this one, the third volume of Brooks Blevins’ History of the Ozarks.
Subtitled “The Ozarkers,” this volume takes us into the late 20th century, what we might call the modern history of the Ozarks. And there’s something in it for everyone.
The book opens with the legendary 1934 contretemps between Springfield businessman John T. Woodruff and folklorist Vance Randolph at the first-ever regional folk festival in the Ozarks, during which Woodruff accused Randolph and his associates of tarnishing the image of the Ozarks with their descriptions of Ozarkers as ignorant hillbillies, superstitious, barefoot moonshiners who idled away their days waiting for the next opportunity to coon hunt. The fact that Randolph’s portrayal came from actual interviews with actual Ozarkers, of course, was a difficulty to this accusation. But the conflict presages and sets the theme for the book: the divide between the modern Ozarks as perceived and the modern Ozarks as lived.
The “real” Ozarks have never been a place as simple as Dogpatch, U.S.A., and we all know that. This book shows just how complicated the history of the real Ozarks has been, with waves of immigration and internal migration, a constantly shifting economy based on the extractive industries of mining, farming, and timber, and an array of conflicting perceptions both from outside and within. So much has happened within the last century in the Ozarks that the book has to move swiftly from incident to incident and theme to theme, and sometimes I wished for it to slow down and devote more time to the things I am interested in the most; but such is the nature of historical writing. The book clocks in at about 300 pages and could easily have been three times that long, and still wouldn’t have covered everything.
One section I especially appreciated was its careful delineation of the changing agricultural economy. When I was a kid growing up in Madison and Reynolds counties, the typical farm was very much “mixed agriculture”: a pen full of hogs, a field with a few dozen cattle, a chickenhouse, maybe some row crops in the bottomland, even sometimes a specialty crop like sorghum or ducks. That model has nearly disappeared these days, replaced by farms that are strictly pasture-and-cattle or rows of giant chicken or turkey sheds (or occasionally, feeder pig operations) with the farm operator in a feudal contract with one of the big poultry juggernauts. Dairy farming has nearly disappeared. The societal impacts of these economic changes are hard to see at first, but when you consider them carefully, one obvious implication is that it becomes harder and harder to maintain a self-sufficient life in the remoter regions as farming becomes more dependent on connections to the larger industrial-agriculture machine. Thus rural counties empty out while population centers remain viable. In addition, these large operations, which seek to minimize labor costs through mechanization, rely on low-skill immigrant populations for their workers, leading to the pockets of impoverished immigrants we see in places like Noel and Aurora. The ripple effects of this demographic shift are hard to miss.
A History of the Ozarks: Volume 3 is now resting on my shelf alongside the other two volumes, but I don’t expect it to stay there long. It’s going to be taken down again and again as I re-read its accounts of Ozark historical events and refresh my understanding of the region’s rich, troubled, and treasured history.
About three and a half years ago, I wrote on this blog about the 1939 tenant farmers’ strike in the Missouri Bootheel, an event that I had not heard about until that moment. It reminded me just how much history is lost or overlooked, especially history that the dominant social group finds unpleasant. Since that time, I’ve learned a bit more.
One thing that I knew then, but didn’t fully grasp, was the extent to which the tenant farmers’ dispossession was the result of Federal policy. The Roosevelt administration was trying to prop up agricultural prices to rescue farmers, who had been going broke by the hundreds of thousands for many years by then. One of the tools they were using in this effort was direct support payments, paying farmers to take land out of production in order to increase prices. But a side-effect of this policy was that once farmers took their land out of production, they no longer needed workers. This doesn’t make the farmers any less culpable or racist in their attitudes, but it does help explain their motivation.
My friend Trevor Harris, who creates the Mo’ Curious podcast sponsored by Missouri Life, got interested in this topic and has been down in the Bootheel making recordings. I’m eager to find out what he obtained, and to hear the podcast that will surely come out of it.
In the meantime, I’ve learned that a documentary film was made in 1999 about the strike, entitled Oh Freedom After While. If your library allows you access to Kanopy, you can view it on that platform. It’s also viewable on Vimeo.
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.
From a journal article I’m reading: “On September 20, 1948, Lucinda Crenshaw, Carryola Dickson, Georgia Jones, Otelia Scaife, and Rosie Holman, all members of the North Wyatt [Missouri] Women’s Club, decided to take matters into their own hands. They walked their children from North Wyatt to the white elementary school, at the edge of the nearby town of Wyatt, and tried to enroll them in the school. They were denied permission on the grounds the state constitution of Missouri forbade African American and white children from attending school together. . . . Notes from a Delmo board meeting suggest the women were threatened with arrest for disturbing the peace.”
Just in case you are looking for ideas for a statue to replace some of those Confederate generals. And think about that date, too: 1948. These women were real pioneers.
Source: Heidi Dodson, “Race and Contested Space in the Missouri Delta,” Buildings & Landscapes 23:1 (Spring 2016), 78-101.
I’ve been reading a new book lately, Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks by Thomas M. Kersen, who is a sociologist at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Tom grew up in a back-to-the-land community in the northern Arkansas hills, so he knows whereof he speaks regarding counterculture in the Ozarks.
The book, after a couple of chapters establishing its geographical and theoretical base, goes into a series of chapters about various groups that have existed on the cultural “edge” in the Ozarks: religious groups, music groups, alternative-living societies, and others. Although the book has an impressive scholarly apparatus, it’s clearly a work of love on Kersten’s part: he doesn’t shy away from the first person, describing his own experiences and his interactions with members of the various groups. This approach gives the book a more informal feel than many scholarly studies, which I welcomed.
Many of the chapters originated as talks given to the annual Ozarks Studies Conference, held in September in West Plains, so I had the privilege of hearing them in an earlier form as a member of the audience there. (Let me pause to give a plug to that conference, which is sponsored by Missouri State University – West Plains; if you’re at all interested in the Ozarks, it’s a great event to start attending!) But seeing them developed into book form gives me a better sense of the connecting threads.
What connects the chapters is their focus on groups and people who are at the edges of the social mainstream, what Kersen calls “liminal” regions. Inhabiting an edge region gives someone more freedom of behavior than a person or group possesses when firmly entrenched in a social structure. His theory is that the Ozarks themselves are a liminal region, and thus they attract liminal groups and individuals. It’s an intriguing argument.
Kersen covers a wide range of edge-dwellers, from music groups to religious groups to back-to-the-landers. It’s hard for me to pick out a favorite chapter, but I’d have to say the ones in which Kersen has personal experience were the most fun for me to read. He writes about well-known music groups such as the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Black Oak Arkansas, but he also goes into great detail about more obscure groups such as “The Group” (known also as the Dan Blocker Singers) and Hot Mulch, the creators of the back-to-the-land anthem “Ozark Mountain Mother Earth News Freak.” A section on UFO-focused groups introduces us to the remarkable Buck Nelson of Mountain View, Missouri, whose booklet My Trip to Mars, the Moon, and Venus prompted a long string of spaceship conferences on his remote property.
It’s tempting to see these misfits as amusing eccentrics, but the book also touches upon groups that had a darker side, such as the Purple People, the Searcy County, Arkansas, group whose strange dress and religious beliefs were underlain by a repressive and sometimes violent set of behaviors. This direction is not the ultimate province of this book, though, but I’d like to see someone take it on. I find myself wondering: if the Ozarks has proven to be a welcoming home for communal groups and eccentric agriculturalists, so too has it been a comfortable place for fanatics, cultists, and plain old scary people. I’m old enough to remember The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, a violent Christian Identity group that set up a compound in northern Arkansas in the ’70s and ’80s. They were not the first, and certainly have not been the last, and even today there are extremist groups up some of those dirt roads. Being a liminal region poses threats as well as offering opportunities.
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.
I’ve had my issues with the Missouri Department of Conservation. But for the most part, it’s the one agency of state government that you can usually rely on to work in a nonpartisan way, with a clear mission focus and a modest ability to disregard the momentary winds of opinion. Take, for example, the department’s recent decision to create a bear hunting season in the state, which an overwhelming majority of the public comments disagreed with. If the department needed to bend to public opinion, it wouldn’t have shrugged off the public comments with such ease.
This nonpartisan emphasis, naturally, has been a burr under the saddle of the state legislature for decades. The idea that an agency of government could stand apart from politics is anathema to them. That agency could be such a source of influence, such a repository of bureaucratic jobs to fill, such a wellspring of votes! And so it has tried, again and again, to grab control over the Conservation Department, which is protected in its structure by the state constitution. Never mind the fact that Missouri’s Conservation Department is just about the only aspect of state government that is envied elsewhere.
The latest effort began as a bill sponsored by the representative from my hometown, and would have changed the membership of the Missouri Conservation Commission from appointed to elected, thus politicizing it completely. The representative claimed that members would run on a nonpartisan basis, but we know how “nonpartisan” that works in practice. So the new plan, which has passed a House committee, would insert both the House and the Senate into the nomination process, assuring that new appointments would have to pass the political scrutiny of legislative leaders before taking their positions. Even in this dressed-up version, it’s still such an atrociously bad idea that the House speaker had to pack the committee with a bunch of extra members to get the proposal to pass.
Every session, I think to myself that the Missouri Legislature cannot possibly come up with a more reactionary, hare-brained, backward set of proposals than they did in the previous session, and every session they prove me wrong. This year’s crop looks to continue that trend, with proposals to make it easier for people to evade vaccination requirements and to hamstring local health departments (in the middle of a pandemic!) at the top of the list. A fair number of these ideas end up on the scrap heap, thank goodness, but enough of them get through to make one despair whether Missouri will ever become the moderate, sensible, “Show-Me” state I remember from my younger days.
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.