In late 2018, my wife and I moved from Georgia to Springfield, a town of about 170,000 people in southwest Missouri. It’s a great location for us because we have family and close friends in Georgia, Kansas, Texas, and Arizona. We really enjoy traveling, especially to the desert southwest, but we like the Florida beaches and places like New York City, Chicago, and Nashville. Living in Springfield strategically positions us near the center of the country and makes it easier to get to family, friends, and fun destinations. The icing on the cake is the small national airport that is a mere twenty minutes from our house, which is serviced by three major airlines and a few budget carriers.
Southern Missouri and northern Arkansas make up the bulk of the region known as the Ozarks. It as an area of the country defined by a variety of factors, from geology and topography to culture and customs. It is also quite beautiful. It is rich in natural resources, especially water, minerals, and forests. It is a complicated region in almost every category imaginable. Although it boasts no major cities, it does have some bustling urban centers. There are some wealthy people in the Ozarks, but there are far more families living in serious poverty. On the political spectrum, it is largely conservative with pockets of progressivism mostly in and around the cities.
Admittedly, I knew very little about the Ozarks. I had never set foot in Missouri and only visited once just a few months before we moved here. To get “learned up” about our new home, I did what I always do when encountering something new and unfamiliar. I started reading. The following is an annotated list of books I have read about the Ozarks over the last three years or so. My bibliography is in no way intended to be comprehensive or even representative; however, these books have given me greater insight into the history, culture, and people of the Ozarks. All of these titles are nonfiction, but I have also read fiction by Ozarks writers or stories set in the region. Perhaps sometime I will write a post reviewing those books as well.
A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3: The Ozarkers by Brooks Blevins
Brooks Blevins is the uncontested authority on the history of the Ozarks. He is a professor at Missouri State University in Springfield, where I am also employed. But his full-time residence is in northern Arkansas, so he has his feet planted in the two main states of the Ozarks. He is a fine writer, a serious scholar, a respected teacher, and an all-round nice fellow. I have only read this 3rd volume of his trilogy, but I intend to at least go back and read the 1st volume covering the early history of the region.
Blevins is at his best when he is dispelling many of the misconceptions and over-generalizations of the Ozarks as a place full of backwoods hillbillies with no connection to the modern world. He also does a great job of pointing out the most attractive features of the region without romanticizing or falling into the trap of exceptionalism, which is always tempting to do if you are so identified with a place, which I believe he is.
The chapters on “Ozarks Society” and “Putting on a Show,” along with his “Conclusion,” were the most interesting to me because they highlight how much the Ozarks have changed over the last 150 years and are continuing to evolve. I’m not sure I agree with Blevins that the specific location of the Ozarks, a topic of serious debate for generations, is best defined by where the Ozarkers live; however, there seems to be a strong sense of place appreciated by so many people who live here, quite similar to sentiments held by many people in the Deep South about their region. This is a solid historical overview of a complex and fascinating part of the country in the modern period.
Living Waters: The Springs of Missouri by Loring Bullard
This book is well documented and researched. The photographs of the springs and streams they feed are stunningly beautiful. The layout of the book makes it easy and enjoyable to read. However, aside from the technical aspects of the book, Bullard clearly has a passion for his subject that is both personal and professional, which is demonstrated in the text of every page.
The organization of the book is especially fine, with chapters focusing on features and functions of springs rather than on individual locations. Bullard incorporates a considerable amount of history to offer context and appreciation of how past generations have understood and valued springs in the state and have taken advantage of them as valuable natural resources. Of course, the environmental message throughout is of paramount importance — we must take good care of our state’s springs because of the vital role they play in providing clean water for the ecosystems they feed.
White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 by Kimberly Harper
Harper presents a thoroughly researched and well documented scholarly study that helps explain why the southwestern Ozarks is such a white region of the country. Lynching occurred in many places across the South, and obviously, into the Midwest. Many white people who had lived during the time of slavery, whether they actually owned slaves or not, resented the new autonomy of black people in their communities during Restoration. Over the decades, resentment evolved into a fear. “While blacks may not have been true economic, social, or even political competitors in the region, whites viewed blacks as a threat to their wives, daughters, and police officers.” Obviously, much of the fear centered on the perceived sexual predation of black men. “It was believed that women were not safe in the country or the city, so long as African American men roamed free.”
However, Harper goes beyond the acts of horrible white mob violence to explore why African Americans were driven out of communities, often at the same time lynching took place. Similar action was taken in other parts of the country — Forsyth County in north central Georgia comes to mind. Other areas of north Georgia, especially in the Appalachian foothills, still have small black populations to this day.
In the Ozarks and in the north Georgia mountains, the economy in the early 20th century was primarily subsistence farming, which did not require much labor outside the extended family of the farmer. As Harper observes, “This was in contrast to the black-majority regions of the South, where inexpensive and readily available black labor composed a significant segment of the local economy, making African Americans indispensable to local white employers.” One could easily make the same argument in recent decades for why white farmers have not been so anxious to deport undocumented Latinos from regions of the South where industrial agriculture is dominant and depends on vast numbers of inexpensive laborers.
This is a fine addition to American history and African American studies. Harper’s book joins more recent work on lynching by prominent African American scholars. Highly recommended.
Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks by Jared M. Phillips
I had the opportunity to hear the author speak on a panel with two people who were involved in the Back To Land movement in the Arkansas Ozarks at a conference in West Plains, Missouri, in September, 2019. The people who decided beginning back in the 1970s to trade in urban dwelling for a rural, subsistence lifestyle among the hills and “hollers” of the Ozarks are often referred to as Hipbillies — a hybrid of hippies and hillbillies.
Phillips does a good job of placing this movement in the context of 20th century back-to-the-land and counter-culture philosophy characterized by the works of people like Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. He gives proper credit to the successes of the Hipbillies while also recognizing their failures and some of their less-than-pure intentions. He credits them for fighting for environmental health, sustainable agricultural practices, and social justice issues. One of their greatest accomplishments was succeeding in modest changes to how the US Forest Service approached the management of timber.
Phillips admires how the Hipbillies, especially the pioneers from the early 1970s, faced overwhelming odds and even life-threatening circumstances yet still persevered to make it as homesteaders in a part of the country where the land is not so forgiving. He dispels some of the myths about how native Ozarkers rejected the Hipbillies. Instead, they often embraced them and even saved their lives during harsh winters and unpredictable farming seasons. There were clashes in places like Eureka Springs, but that was more a conflict between counter-culturists and town leadership.
The Hipbillies had big dreams when they landed in the Ozarks. “What was sought, then, was a rehabilitation of American culture — one that began in the dirt and grew over time like the forest that slowly reclaims and heals a ruined field,” Phillips writes. He contends that the Hipbillies took themselves seriously as revolutionaries. They “came to the Ozarks seeking refuge and a place in which they might build a new world for themselves, and hopefully, all of humanity . . . . While they did not always succeed, the story is not over — they are still alive and are still powerful cultural, political, and economic forces in the Arkansas highlands.”
Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks by J. Blake Perkins
The myths and stereotypes about the Ozarks are deeply ingrained in our consciousness, but they never have painted a true picture of the people and their culture, desires, needs, problems, etc. Perkins’s book reinforces one essential truth about Ozarks people: they tend be proud and fiercely independent, even in the face of long-term adversity.
There is a strong tradition of tension between individual rural families and individuals and/or institutions in authority. Poverty has always been a dark shadow hanging over the Ozarks, even when other parts of the country were climbing out of it. Although many people here petitioned for government assistance in the past, there is a history in this region of distrust of government programs, which ended up being administered and exploited by local and state officials. Law enforcement was fine as long as it didn’t try to stop individuals from scraping out a living, even through illegal means. More than anything, native Ozarkers have always just wanted to be left alone. When their autonomy was threatened, especially by outside forces, they sometime became violent.
Ozarks Hillbilly by Tom Koob and Curtis Copeland
Koob and Copeland do a good job here of presenting the stereotypes of the Hillbilly as the term has been used in literature and other art forms to describe many of the rural folk in the Ozarks. The authors argue that, contrary to the traditional image of a lazy, shiftless, ignorant, depraved character, the Ozarks Hillbilly is quite industrious, shrewd, and highly skilled. Hillbillies are survivalists and generations of them have struggled to provide for themselves and their families in a harsh and unforgiving environment.
I found it odd in a book about the Ozarks how much time the authors spent on discussing Appalachian Hillbillies. They seem to have keen interest in the way Hillbillies were presented in Deliverance, the novel by James Dickey and the popular film adaptation starring Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty. There are definitely similarities between the two regions of the country, which have been explored by numerous scholars. The stereotypes of the rural residents of both areas also share commonalities. Perhaps a comparison/contrast book would have been even more helpful and intriguing.
Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks by Thomas Michael Kersen
For Kersen, the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, serves as an archetype for his thesis of how counterculture distinguishes the Ozarks and is among its more charming and sustaining features. As he states it, “The magic of Eureka Springs is that the town is a mass of contradictions and microconflicts that breed [sic] creativity.” No wonder that the book’s title is also the semi-official motto of the town: Where Misfits Fit.
Kersen does a good job of weaving the eccentricities of the people who occupy the Ozarks into the history of the region. He first offers his identification of the region, defining it by geography and culture. He then proceeds to outline its countercultural characteristics through popular myths, artistic expression, supernatural fixations, cult activity, musical influence and inspiration, and the back-to-the-land movements primarily of the 1970s (the author’s parents brought him to the Ozarks from Texas as part of this larger movement).
A thread running throughout the book is Kersen’s use of the adjective “liminal” to describe the Ozarks – a place that is difficult to box in and that continually crosses lines. He writes that “the Ozarks defies boundaries of all sorts — it is a work in progress.” Here again, the contradictions of the area come into play. For instance UFO enthusiasts that have been drawn here for decades rely on scientific knowledge about astronomy and space exploration but scorn scientists who fail to validate their paranormal claims. Kersen recognizes that “eccentric places attract eccentric people — people willing to live and think in the margins.” He also believes the Ozarks “offers something unique for its inhabitants and even American culture at large.”
I found some of the most valuable information in the Conclusions chapter, especially about the impact of in-migration into the Ozarks from countries around the world. The author wonders how Ozark identity will change as the racial and ethnic profile of the region continues to change. The book has extensive end notes, an impressive bibliography for further reading and study, and a decent index. Just a few points of criticism: the book could have benefited from skillful editing. There are too many typo kind of errors for an academic press book. Also, I suspect this book is a collection of separately-written essays because there is considerable repetition of information in the chapters. Otherwise, it is a fine book that is both accessible and informative.
Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America by Bill Geist
I was drawn to this book primarily because I visited the Lake of the Ozarks just a few months after settling here. I didn’t know anything about Bill Geist as I never watch Sunday Morning on CBS. I may have read his columns before but am not aware if I have. I can relate to many of the references Geist makes to growing up in the 1960s and 70s, although he is a bit older than I am. Some readers will no doubt be put off by the political incorrectness of the author’s perspectives, language, and the circumstances from his adolescence, but I suspect he is being perfectly honest and straightforward with his recollections and descriptions of his life and times working for his uncle and aunt at their lakeside lodge. There are some really laugh-out-loud passages in this book, which made it an enjoyable read.
Footprints in the Ozarks: A Memoir by Ellen Gray Massey
This is a pleasant read. It isn’t challenging; the text is straightforward; it doesn’t reveal anything new about the Ozarks region; it gets a bit sentimental in places; and it is so bucolic that the reader can almost smell the cow manure on the farm where Massey lived and raised her family. She also worked as a high school English teacher, and apparently quite a good one. She supervised her students over a ten-year period as they produced a quarterly journal titled Bittersweet. The value of this book lies in Massey’s descriptions of the social mores of her community, the relationships of family and friends, the tragedies her family faced (including the death of her husband), and how life in the rural Ozarks was fulfilling and rewarding to her, as it has been for so many others for many generations.