This year, our theme is “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.” The idea that you can’t understand someone (and shouldn’t judge them) until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes is a pretty common sentiment. And research has shown that reading fiction is one way to really get such a walk going. So, that’s what we are going to do this year: use fiction (and some nonfiction when we just can’t resist) to take walks in someone’s shoes. We hope you lace up those sneakers and join our journey. To kick off the series, we’re going to start close to home.
The Ozarks are a beautiful place to live, but historically Ozarkers, the people native to this region, have had a rather maligned reputation nationally. Both the hillbilly stereotype and the legacy of isolated frontier life have left a mark on outsiders’ perceptions of life in this region. Fortunately, we have a lot of books in our collection that can help us explore an insider’s perspective (as well as some insightful outsiders’ perspectives) as we think about the deep roots of our local culture.
I will start with the most common works of which people may have heard. We have quite a few excellent nonfiction books that probe the region’s history that I’ve previously covered on the blog. We also have the novel most people associate with the area, Shepherd of the Hills.
However, we have a rich collection of Ozark literature beyond that, some of which I’ve covered over the years on the blog and some of which I haven’t, and that’s what we really want to shine a light on this month.
We have a lovely anthology of Ozark literature edited by MSU-West Plains professor Philip Howerton. In fact, Dr. Howerton gave a talk at our library about the book and Ozark literature in 2019. The Literature of the Ozarks: An Anthology includes a wide sample of Ozark literature, spanning two centuries (from the native Osage to the present), while also probing how a regional identity–and regional stereotypes–developed.
That dichotomy between insider and outsider is a recurring one in Ozark literature–with, as previously noted, many of the books focusing on an outsider’s perspective.
One novel that provides both that and an insider’s POV is Paulette Jiles’s acclaimed Civil War novel Enemy Women. It provides a vivid and harrowing account of the home front, from the perspectives of a Union major and teenaged girl with very little interest in the war but a very decided interest in returning home to her family’s farm.
Another modern-day classic of Ozark literature–and one that focuses pretty exclusively on an insider’s perspective–is Daniel Woodrell’s harrowing Winter’s Bone. Like Enemy Women, Winter’s Bone focuses on a tough young woman, but this one’s life is torn apart by her parents’ meth addiction rather than war.
For some lighter Ozark reading, you can also try Diane Taylor Denarski’s Ozark Story-Poems, which tell about Ozark life through original poems and ballads.
For a perspective that manages to combine both outsider and insider, Roger Lea MacBride’s Little Farm in the Ozarks and Little Town in the Ozarks may be just the ticket. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series and their chronicle of life in 19th century Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas are well-known. Perhaps what is lesser known is that Laura and her husband Almanzo relocated to the Ozarks as adults, so MacBride’s books focus on the perspective of their daughter Rose as she adjusts to life on their Missouri farm and then later life in Mansfield, Missouri.
Jory Sherman is best known for his Westerns, but he was also a long-time resident of the Ozarks and an accomplished poet and short story writer who wrote quite lyrically about his chosen home, including in the anthology The Sadness of Autumn.
For a truly local-to-us perspective, you can’t get any closer than Fayrene Farmer’s The Home Place: Meditations on an Ozark Life. It’s a collection of newspaper columns (called “Nubbin Ridge”) that Farmer wrote for a variety of Carroll County newspapers.
In the annals of Ozark literature, Suzette Haden Elgin’s The Ozark Trilogy may well be one of the most unique. A native of the Missouri Ozarks, Elgin had a career as a linguistics professor in California before retiring to Huntsville, Arkansas, just down the road from us. She’s perhaps best known for her feminist sci fi Native Tongues series, for which she created her own language, but she also generated a fair amount of critical buzz for The Ozark Trilogy when it was first published in the 1980s. In it, settlers from the Ozarks have set up homesteads in outer space. They’ve preserved a lot of their traditional lives and folkways, but they intersect with magic and the futuristic technology you’d expect from a book set in 3012. For example, the mules in these Ozarks can fly.
As informative and insightful as fiction about the Ozarks can be in depicting the area, the stories people tell about themselves can be just as illuminating, and when it comes to the folklore of the Ozarks, you really can’t go wrong with Vance Randolph’s work.
Randolph was a folklorist originally from Kansas, but he called the Ozarks home for sixty years. He’s best known for collecting local folklore, but he was just as interested in the unique local dialect and music.
Our collection of his work on folklore include Sticks in the Knapsack and Other Ozark Folk Tales, The Devil’s Pretty Daughter and Other Ozark Folk Tales, and the somewhat notorious Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (which compiled all the bawdy ones he couldn’t print in the 1950s).
We also have his compendium on local folk songs (Ozark Folksongs) and Down in the Holler: A Gallery of Ozark Folk Speech for those interested in the traditional ways Ozarkers spoke.
If you’re not much of one for fiction or folklore and folkways studies but still want to walk a mile–or rather a lot of miles–in an Ozarker’s shoes, Tim Ernst’s guidebooks on hiking trails around the Natural State, as well as his photography books, are classics for a reason.
What’s your favorite book set in the Ozarks? Who’s your favorite local author? What are your favorite Arkansas hikes? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on any of these items or to place them on hold.