Vol. VIII, No. 3, 1995


A Glance at Readin' An' Ritin' in The Ozarks

by John Wesley Hall



In the Ozarks books and larnin' have often played second fiddle to a lot of other things, like huntin' and farmin' and cannin'. Even so, it's impressive how much fiction, poetry, and colorful autobiography from and about this region has piled up on bookshelves around the country. Writing is probably still an avocation for most native Ozarks writers, but there are signs that this is changing. Working writers, like musicians and other artists, have found the Ozarks an attractive home, and in Springfield and Branson, Missouri and Harrison, Arkansas, active writing groups encourage published and unpublished authors.

Most writers living in the Ozarks are not natives and therefore don't use the region as a setting in their books. Reproducing and transcribing believable Ozarks dialects, difficult for a talented native, is next to impossible for the newcomer, regardless of his or her talents. A few outsiders, like Harold Bell Wright (Shepherd of the Hills) and MacKinlay Kantor (The Voice of Bugle Ann), have written best-selling fiction about the Ozarks, but the popularity of these two books is not based upon the authenticity of their characters' speech. Many writers from the Ozarks, like Art Homer, Vera and Bill Cleaver, and Wilson Rawls, have written best sellers set in this region but have chosen to live elsewhere.

The natural beauty of the Ozarks, the mild weather, and the friendliness of the natives have attracted many aspiring writers from distant places. Two very different authors of this kind are Janet Dailey and Crescent Dragonwagon, featured in "Medley of Contemporary Ozarks Writers" in this issue. Sometimes, such persons have banded together with natives to form writers' groups, such as the Ozarks Writers' League--OWLs--that meets seriously once a month at the College of the Ozarks and, less seriously, on Friday afternoons in a tavern in Forsyth). In such organizations successful writers mingle with and encourage beginners and daydreamers.

A casual perusal of literature about or written in the Ozarks reveals several types, some of it scholarly. They include folklore, biography and autobiography (including much that is fictionalized), and novels and short stories. Poetry is also a popular form. A pleasant surprise among serious poets is Michael Bums, who is featured in this issue of OzarksWatch.

The best known folklorist of the Ozarks is the late Kansas native, Vance Randolph. His collection of bawdy Ozark folktales Pissing in the Snow was a paperback best seller in the 1980's. Other collections by Randolph include a volume of Ozarks speech--From an Ozark Holler; a volume of general ethnology--Ozark Mountain Folk, a volume of superstition and medical and other lore--Ozark Magic and Folklore, and several volumes of folktales including The Talking Turtle, Who Blowed Up the Church House, and Sticks in the Knapsack. Randolph's collections, though labeled Ozarks, should be recognized as representative of a small part of the Ozarks, namely northwest-em Arkansas, southwestern Missouri, a small comer of Oklahoma, and more of Kansas than is actually in the Ozarks. A beautifully illustrated volume of French folktales from the eastern Ozarks is Rosemary Thomas's It's Good to Tell You, published with Thomas's translations facing Joseph Carriere's original collection of Missouri French folktales.

Among the most interesting and historically valuable collections of chronicles about the Ozarks are two books edited by James Keefe and Lynn Morrow: A Connecticut Yankee in the Frontier Ozarks: The Writings of Theodore Pease Russell (1988) and The White River Chronicles ofS. C. Turnbo: Man and Wildlife on the Ozarks Frontier (1994). Of the many histories written about the region, Elmo Ingenthron's The Land of Taney (1983) stands out as one of the more insightful and thorough. Mary Hartman's recently published history of the Baldknobbers and Phyllis Rossiter's Living History of The Ozarks are also noteworthy.

Short story anthologies that immediately come to mind are Arthur Joel Bolinger's Mine Eyes Unto the Hills (1966), Michael Bums and Mark Sanders' Jump: ing Pond (1983), and William Byron Mowery's Tales of the Ozarks (1954).

Many novels have been written about or set in the Ozarks; but sad to say, a great number of these are thinly disguised reminiscences without plot, characterization, theme, motif, conflict, believable dialogue, or anything else except setting. Many are fictionalized sermons or guide books on how to live a religious life.

Depending upon what one is looking for in a story, some of these might be excusable, like Edgar E. Hulse's Light On the Lookout (1972), about a young school teacher trying to upgrade not only the minds of his backwoods pupils but their souls as well; Iris Culver Meadows' Jenny of the Ozark Mountains (1989), about a flesh and blood Ozarks girl growing up in the 1920's and 1930's; Marion Dickens' Ozark Odyssey (1955); William G. Hall's Turkey Knob Line (1954); and Kirkscey Hubbard's An Ozark Ballad (1952), an imaginary biography of a country boy.

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There are, of course, a great number of first rate novels about the Ozarks, far more than space and time limitations will permit here: therefore, let me choose a few favorites, some recently off the press and some old favorites that have weathered the test of time and changing tastes.

This year's best seller from the Ozarks is Art Homer's The Drownt Boy: An Ozark Tale. It's actually three stories in one, all flowing along smoothly and swiftly, like the Current River which is the thread that holds everything together: Homer's story about a float trip with his stepson frames the frantic search by local authorities for a recently "drownt" boy; during quiet intervals along the river, Homer daydreams the third--reminiscences of hard realities of growing up in Reynolds County, Missouri.

The writing team of Vera and Bill Cleaver has turned out two Ozarks classics, the first in 1969 (Where the Lilies Bloom) about a young girl, Mary Call, who will stop at nothing to hold her orphaned family together. The central conflict in the story is built around her spacey sister's intention to marry a low down, good-for-nothing, creel and heartless person, Kiser Pease. It reminded me of Sounder and The Waltons, and Mary Call reminded me of the heroic young gift in True Grit. The other, written in 1973 (The Whys and Wherefores of Littabelle Lee), is about a young girl who grows up with her grandmother, one of the last yarb doctors. She overcomes hardships and tragedies to learn the mysteries and powers of herb healing.

The Oklahoma Ozarks, around Tahlequah and Barron Fork Creek, is the setting of Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. Like Where the LiUies Bloom, this was a product of the 1960's that was turned into a successful movie. It is the story of a young boy growing to manhood in the Ozarks. The focus is upon the getting, raising, and training of two redbone hound pups. It is reminiscent of The Voice of Bugle Ann, by MacKinlay Kantor. Rawls' sequel to Red Fern, which had the same title except the word Two was added, was set in Louisiana; and all of the warmth and excitement of the original story was, for me, missing.

Two of the Ozarks' most prolific authors write popular novels. Jory Sherman may be the most prolific and popular writer of westerns since Louis L'Amour. Janet Dailey, author of romances and, now, historical romance, is featured in this issue in "Medley.''

In a class of her own, Suzann Ledbetter of Nixa is the author of two recent books of humorous essays reminiscent of Erma Bombeck: The Toast Always Lands Jelly-Side Down (1993) and I Have Everything I Had Twenty Years Ago Except Now It's All Lower (spring; 1995).

Among my favorite poets are Edgar Michael Eagan's The Swimmin' Hole and Other Poems; the poems of Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey (1877-1948), the "Poet Laureate of the Ozarks" and long-time correspondent for the Taney County Republican and various Springfield, Missouri newspapers (whose life and work is now being treated in a doctoral dissertation by Jody Bilyeu; and the poems of George Ballard (1882-1951), the Ozarks best-known African-American poet whose work was published in Ozark BaUards (1928).

A Selected List of Sources on Land, Life, and People of the Ozarks

Ballard, George. Ozark Ballards. Fayetteville: The Daily Democrat, 1902.Poems. African-American.

Bolinger, Arthur Joel. Mine Eyes Unto the Hills. An Ozark Anthology. Privately printed. New York: Vantage Press, 1966.

Bums, Michael, and Mark Sanders, eds. Jumping Pond.

Poems and Stories fromthe Ozarks. Springfield:

Southwest Missouri State University, 1983.

Printed by Irwin Printing, Springfield.

Cleaver, Vera and Bill. The Whys and Wherefores of Littabelle Lee. New York: Atheneum, 1973.

Cleaver, Vera and Bill. Where the Lilies Bloom. New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1969.

Compton, Neil. A Battle for the Buffalo River: A Twentieth Century Conservation crisis in the Ozarks. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992.

Dickens, Marion. Ozark Odyssey. New York: Vantage Press, 1955.

Eagan, Edgar Michael. The Swimmin' Hole and Other Poems. Jefferson City, Missouri: Shield Publications, 1976.

Ellis, Roy. Shrine of the Ozarks. Springfield: Southwest Missouri State University Press, 1968. A history of SW Missouri State U.

Gerstacker, Friedrich. In the Arkansas Backwoods. Tales and Sketches. Edited and Translated by James William Miller. Columbia: The University of Missouri Press, 1991.

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Gilmore, Robert K., Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, & Other Diversions. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

Hall, John Wesley. The Hungry Hills. A cycle of thirty-four tree stores from the Missouri Ozarks. Springfield: Hallwtight Press, 1994.

Hall, William G. Turkey Knob Line. A Novel of the Ozarks. New York: Exposition, 1954.

Homer, Art. The Drownt Boy: An Ozark Tale. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Hubbard, Kirkscey. An Ozark Ballad. Imaginary Biography of a Country Boy. New York: Exposition Press, 1952.

Hulse, Edgar E. Light On The Lookout. A Novel of Romance in the Ozarks. Point Lookout, Missouri: School of the Ozarks Press, 1972.

Ingenthron, Elmo. The Land ofTaney. A History of an Ozark Commonwealth. Branson, Missouri: The Ozark Mountaineer, 1983.

Kantor, MacKinlay. The Voice of BugleAnn. New York: Coward-McCann, 1935.

Keefe, James, and Lynn Morrow, eds. A Connecticut Yankee in the Frontier Ozarks. The Writings of Theodore Pease Rusell. Columbia, Missouri: The University of Missouri Press, 1988.

Keefe, James, and Lynn Morrow, eds. The White River Chronicles ofS. C. Turnbo. Man and Wildlife on the Ozarks Frontier. Fayetteville, Arkansas: The University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

Ledbetter, Suzann. I Had Everything I Had Twenty Years Ago Except Now ltg All Lower. New York: Crown, 1995.

Ledbetter, Suzann. The Toast Always Lands Jelly-Side Down. New York: Crown, 1993. (Suzann lives in Nixa, is contributing editor to Family Circle Magazine.)

Lederer, Katherine. "Many Thousand Gone." Media program, Springfield, Missouri & African-Ameri-can History.

McGill, Robert. Moving to the Country. White Oak Press, 1987.

McNeil, W.K. and William M. Clements, eds. An Arkansas Folklore Sourcebook. Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 1992.

Meadows, Iris Culver. Jenny of the Ozark Mountains. Growing up in rural south Missouri in the 1920's and 1930's. Chicago: Adams Press, 1989.

Mowery, William Byron. Tales of the Ozarks. New York: Bourgy and Curl, 1954.

Rafferty, Milton. The Ozarks: Land & Life. Norman: The University of Oklahoma, 1980.

Randolph, Vance, editor. From an Ozark Holler. New York: Vanguard Press, 1933.

Randolph, Vance. Ozark Folklore: A Bibliography. Vol. 24 of the Folklore Institute Monograph Se-ties. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1972.

Randolph, Vance, editor. Ozark Mountain Folks. New York: Vanguard Press, 1932.

Randolph, Vance, editor. The Talking Turtle and Other Ozark Folk Tales. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957.

Rawls, Wilson. Where The Red Fern Grows. New York: Doubleday, 1961.

Ring, Bill. Tall Tales Are Not All From Texas. Point Lookout, Missouri: School of the Ozarks.

Rossiter, Phyllis. A Living History of the Ozarks. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Press, 1992. (Phyllis now lives in Theodosia.)

Schroeder, Adolf E. (trans. & ed.) Hold Dear As Always: Jette, A German Immigrant Life in Letters. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988.

Sechler, E.T. Leaves from an Ozark Journal 193 7-1946, Vol. 2. Westport Press, 2612 Mt. Vernon, Springfield MO 65802, 1982. (Roberts & Sutter Printers, Springfield, Missouri.)

Weaver, H. Dwight. The Wilderness Underground: Caves of the Ozarks Plateau. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.

Young, Richard and Judy Dockery, editors. Ozark Tall Tales. Little Rock, Arkansas: August House, 1989.

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