Friday, May 15, 2015

What Are the Ozarks?

by Steve Wiegenstein, Finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction
Winner to be announced at the Historical Novel Society Luncheon on June 27, 2015 and HERE.

My novel series is set in the Ozark Mountains, an area of the United States that is not well known, even to most Americans. Those who have heard of the Ozarks probably only know it from a couple of sources: the simple, comically rustic family on the television show “The Beverly Hillbillies” or the clannish methamphetamine dealers of the novel and movie “Winter’s Bone.” Both narratives, oddly enough, have (fictional) roots in the same location, Taney County, Missouri.

The Ozarks are a rugged region of hills (the “mountains” descriptor is essentially honorific) in the central part of the United States, mainly in the states of Missouri and Arkansas. Because the hills obstructed travel, the region was lightly settled during the westward expansion period and developed a reputation for backwardness and poverty. The literary Ozarks begin with The Shepherd of the Hills (1907), the first American novel to sell a million copies. The Shepherd of the Hills took the hillbilly stereotype and added a layer of Christian uplift over the top of it, along with enough melodrama to fuel a contemporary TV mini-series for two or three seasons.

Although the people of the Ozarks are poor, the region itself has long been attractive to outsiders. The earliest European settlers, French, came for lead and iron. In the late Nineteenth Century, the nation’s craving for building materials led to indiscriminate timber cutting that changed the landscape permanently. In the mid-Twentieth Century, the region’s steep and narrow valleys drew power companies and government dam builders, who envisioned a network of hydroelectric power dams feeding the electrical needs of the rest of the Midwest (only a few of which have actually proven efficient). The 1960s saw a renewal of the lead and iron boom. And for the last several decades, the commodity in demand has been natural beauty, as retirees and tourists flock to the rivers and lakes of the Ozarks in search of a rustic ideal.

Ozark Lumber Company

Rural hill people everywhere are experienced in dealing with exploitative outsiders, and Ozarkers are no different. The classic legend/fiddle tune “The Arkansas Traveler,” in which a country bumpkin baffles a traveling city slicker with his incomprehensible logic, exemplifies this interaction as well as anything I know. The old fiddler is either a fool or a genius, and the city slicker can’t tell which. The great Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph, quoting one of his informants, titled one of his books We Always Lie to Strangers, an approach that lives on today. That phrase, fittingly enough, was reused by the creators of the 2013 documentary film about Branson, Missouri, the current high temple of all things Ozarks, both faux and authentic.

The history of the Ozarks is rich in contradictions: the idyllic landscape that has existed in grinding poverty since its first colonial settlements, the beautiful isolation that draws political extremists and criminals looking for a place to hide, the residents who resent the stereotypes placed on them but who are willing to employ them when useful. I set my novels in the Ozarks partly because I’m a native of the region and I feel a kinship to it unlike any other; but I also write about the Ozarks because as a novelist who is interested in issues of the environment, social class, the land, and the romantic ideal of Nature, it’s a near-perfect setting to engage with those issues.

An Ozarks Trail

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Steve Wiegenstein is the author of Slant of Light and This Old World, the first two novels in an anticipated multi-book series. Slant of Light, published in 2012, was the runner-up for the David H. Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, and This Old World, published in September 2014, is currently a finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. Both books were published by Blank Slate Press, a literary small press in St. Louis, Missouri.

See more about Steve and his work on the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction website.


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