Sit and Wait for the Sadness

Clickr/Cindy Darling

The Ozarks, a plateau carved by rivers and streams into what are generously called mountains, have always felt like their own American planet, jutting up from what should be uninterrupted plains. They cover the isolated southern half of Missouri and the northern half of Arkansas, an area that’s been largely left out of the national consciousness until now. It’s easy to date recent interest in the Ozarks to the 2010 movie Winter’s Bone, based on a novel by the same name, which received four Oscar nominations and launched Jennifer Lawrence’s film career. A meth-fueled mystery that followed Lawrence’s character as she tried to find her drug-dealer father and save her mother’s family’s land, the movie was treated by reviewers as more documentary than fiction, a portrayal of desperate poverty in a foreign patch of America. 

The Ozarks bear some resemblance to their cultural cousin southern Appalachia and to any other spot where poor white Americans live on soil too rocky to farm. These lands get lumped into what demographers call Southern Highland culture—a nice term for “hillbilly.” People hunt and fish, quilt and crochet, weave baskets and can summer vegetables, and play banjos and dulcimers. Of course, the modern world is mixed in: Hillbillies also drive Fords, eat McDonald’s, and own iPhones. But there is a sense that no one here has stopped relying on the land. The handicrafts celebrated in museums weren’t revived by young hipsters; they’ve been practiced in an unbroken chain. 

What sets the Ozarks apart from other hill country is a trait of the early 19th-century generation that first settled there. All that rich farmland farther west, being taken by the government and sold at a discount to white Americans? Ozark settlers never made it that far. Tired and scared, they didn’t so much settle as stop. From the start, the Ozark spirit was passive, nagged by a vague feeling that life was beyond control: Sit down, and wait for the black sadness to settle in. The folksongs are about hard times, dead children, and men and women murdered for love. Peaks and hollows—like Petit Jean Mountain and Goodnight Hollow, are named after little kids lost in the woods. Though people worship God, they are obsessed with the devil and warn of the spooky caves he dwells in.

But there’s something else that sets the region apart: its booming Western corridor. A string of towns in the highest part of the mountains include the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville); the headquarters of Tyson Foods (Springdale); the birthplace of Wal-Mart (Bentonville); a theme park and country-music theater strip (Branson); and Missouri State University (Springfield). The populations of some of these cities have doubled in the past two decades. Sam Walton’s heirs, the owners of Wal-Mart, are together worth more than $100 billion—Christy Walton, the widow of Sam’s son, is the second-wealthiest woman in the world. New Gilded Age robber barons who use up people as much as resources, the Waltons are an embodiment of the top 1 percent living among the bottom 40 percent. The Wal-Mart scions, who still call northwest Arkansas home, have built the sorts of cultural institutions that make young people want to stay after college and draw in new retirees, who can cheaply build mansions with mountain views.

 

These are the themes Daniel Woodrell, the author of Winter’s Bone, explores. Woodrell, now 61, was born in Springfield. He joined the Marines as a young man and returned to the area after getting a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas and attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His eighth and latest novel, The Maid’s Version, released last fall, takes place in West Table, a fictionalized version of the town he now calls home, West Plains, Missouri. West Plains, which sits in the still-rural eastern half of the Ozarks, is a town of about 12,000. Deep in the mountains, far from the boomtowns, that counts as a crossroads of commerce, home to powerful people. The novel centers on a dance-hall fire from 1929 that killed 42 residents—it’s loosely based on a fire that occurred in West Plains in 1928. Our narrator, Alek, first learned about the incident when he was a boy, an outsider visiting family in the summer of 1965. He recounts the story as an adult, looking back decades later at his childhood.

Alek’s recall is prompted by an event in 1989. A statue of a black angel marking the site of the infamous dance-hall fire starts to shake, he tells us, as if disturbed by the burned dancers trapped in hell. It’s the sort of miracle the area comes out to see: “The spiritualists and goths beamed haughtily as though publicly vindicated, the stoners cackled until told to hush, the gathered relatives seemed to slump in recognition of an old responsibility to their own lost kin that they had long ago put aside when frazzled apathetic by too many mysteries and myriad angles, but might now need to resurrect.” Alek had heard about the fire from his grandmother, Alma; Alma’s beautiful sister Ruby was one of those killed, and the event and its aftermath slowly drove Alma insane. Alma’s son, John Paul—father of Alek—was adopted as a boy by an older couple, who left West Table during the war. John Paul married a rich girl, went to St. Louis for a job selling metal and night classes at Washington University, and worked his way into a stable life. 

The story is presented as a mystery, but the book’s true subjects are the two women, Alma and Ruby, and the ways in which desperate folk like them have always had to navigate towns like West Table. As children, the girls were so poor they had to wake up at night to steal good soil for their family’s land from a bottomlands farm close to a river. Their father, Cecil, a worse than good-for-nothing alcoholic, mule-worked his wife and daughters, and Alma ran away. “Ruby had it worse,” Alek relates. “She was allowed no schooling at all, and Cecil in his dotage had become fond of the whip.” Ruby was also so beautiful that Cecil suspected her of not truly being his daughter. “In looks she did not favor Cecil or any kin he ever saw and that made her nothing but a mouth to feed, an ass to beat, a young body of no relation he could sometimes let his hands rub on the buds and rump and linger until his breathing thickened and he had to lie down next to the whore, her mother, for a piddling relief.” It’s here that Woodrell’s writing, if over-reliant on a Faulknerian rhythm, builds a matter-of-fact terror—a visceral feeling that these characters can’t do anything to stop awful events from unfolding.

The unfolding follows no obvious time line, except for the one Woodrell wants readers to experience. This can be confusing but causes us to focus on the town and its class-bound residents. Alma was a housecleaner for the wealthy—the bankers, county judges, lawyers, and merchants. (The “rich” people in town are only a little better off than the poor, but proximity seems to strengthen their sense of being on top.) The lesson Alma learned from her father was to keep her head down and not disturb those who can hurt her, whereas Ruby tried to gain clout by awakening desire.

By the book’s midpoint, it’s not hard to piece together what happened. Ruby left the wrong man, a powerful one, heartbroken. Many people in town knew the truth. But they decided to console themselves with half-baked alternate theories about the fire’s cause—gangsters from St. Louis make an appearance, as does an itinerant Arkansas preacher. Why the culprit was never charged is easy to figure out, too. The lives lost were worth less than the price of justice.

When the story of what happened in 1929 is finally told, there’s no sense of triumph or revelation; it’s an acquiescent sigh. This fits with our image of Alma, whose snake-bitten life has left her ghostly, wandering in town with her long white hair flowing loose to her feet. Of her three sons, Alek’s father is the only one to make it to adulthood. When Alek first visits West Table as a child, he’s able to move between the town’s two classes—not fully Alma’s grandson, granted a grudging love by a wealthy maternal grandfather. Alek’s in-between-ness makes him the perfect vehicle for the tale, and now is the time for Woodrell to let him tell it. In another era, following the Great Depression, Alek’s father was able to work hard in a country that still created opportunity for men (only men, and white ones at that) who could achieve it. Woodrell tells this story when there is no such promise—only a two-tier country, content to let its underclass burn. 

 

Today, a debut novel by another Missouri writer, Laura McHugh, is trying to capitalize on the new interest in the Ozarks. McHugh was raised in Iowa and southern Missouri, and now lives in Columbia, a college town in the northern part of the state. The Weight of Blood is benefitting from a big publicity push from Random House, in part because of its superficial similarities to Winter’s Bone: a southern Missouri setting, an investigative teenage girl, an absent parent, a scary uncle, and a mystery. 

The book starts from the perspective of Lucy, a 17-year-old whose childhood friend and down-the-road neighbor turns up dead—chopped into pieces and buried for all to see in a hollow tree trunk. Lucy grew up in Henbane, a fictional town of about 700, and has reached the age her mother, Lila, was when she arrived as a strange, beautiful outsider, an orphan from a farm in Iowa. Lila disappeared when Lucy was a baby, and some chapters are written from her viewpoint. What happened to Lucy’s friend and what happened long ago to Lila become part of the same story. Lucy discovers the truth with help from some locals, who are haunted by Lila and look at Lucy as if she’s her dead mother returned.

McHugh isn’t as observant as Woodrell. One strength of Winter’s Bone is how clearly Woodrell makes readers see the Ozarks today. Yes, there are log cabins and deer slain for food. But the heroine also wears combat boots, and characters argue over whether they can afford a fresh shaker of Parmesan for their spaghetti. Old-timey folk traditions get some of their power from the fact that modern people seem committed to them. It’s discordant but believable. In The Weight of Blood, Lila would have come to live in Henbane in the 1990s. But we can’t see what she wore or hear the music she listened to. Lucy’s life as a 17-year-old today suffers from the same lack of specifics: There are hints of teenagers making out at bonfire parties by the river and drinking apple wine, but none of them carry the menace or despair of Winter’s Bone.

While McHugh clunkily drops folksy phrases and bits of lore—a “man with clean nails hides his dirt on the inside”; “I seem to remember Birdie telling me hedge apples kept away spiders, not ghosts”—she seems uncommitted to place. “The welcome sign was peppered with holes, as if someone had blasted it with a shotgun,” Lila observes on one car ride. Of course it was blasted with a shotgun—we’re in the rural South! Characters speak of haints (ghosts) and witches, but their conviction in supernatural powers comes off as hokey, a ploy to give the mystery a backcountry sheen.

The Weight of Blood is meant to be about how small towns punish outsiders for being different, but it could take place anywhere. Its focus on the mostly happy teenager Lucy gives it a feel-good, “I was never the same after that summer” tone. Better to wait for the next Woodrell to wrestle with the Ozark spirit—what it’s reconciled to without peace, with
a horror that haunts.

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