Saturday, July 05, 2008

Book list

Alyssa tells me that if I don't learn how to relax, my "head will pop off." She's tried for years to teach me how to calm down, how not to plan every moment of every vacation, how to hang out in her colorful hammock. I'm pretty lousy at it, really, because there's always so much I want to see and do. But, she added in a recent email, "what would you do without a head?"

So, I've decided to set aside serious books for a couple of weeks and camp out for an hour a day in my big white Adirondack chair with lighter library fare. I'm in the middle of Julian Steyermark's engaging Studies of the Vegetation of Missouri: Natural Plant Associations and Succession in the Ozarks of Missouri, but I'm delicately closing the fragile pages for a short while to enjoy an early Annie Dillard book.

I'm a sucker for local color. When I move to an area, I like to read the native perspective. This proved challenging in New Orleans, where stacks and stacks of books by Faulkner, Williams, Percy, etc. lined my constantly sweating walls. But since moving to Missouri, the task is a lot easier. Not a lot of writers wax poetic about the place, unfortunately, but I'll share a few books about the Ozarks I've enjoyed since moving here. None of these are very difficult to read, and all of them hold very valuable lessons about life in the Ozarks. If you really don't care to learn more about the Ozarks this summer, I recommend from a purely literary perspective Sue Hubbell's A Country Year, her memoir of her first year away from New York working as a beekeeper in the lower Ozark Highlands. I learned a lot from this book, the first one I read upon moving here. For example, however much you appreciate their work, you shouldn't tip the guy who runs the road grater. She brought her Brown University tradition of serving sherry at 5 to her farm community, which likely positively perplexed her neighbors to no end, but they enjoyed it nonetheless. (I was reminded of this recently when, following a float trip on the Jack's Fork, we sat down to eat at a small waterside restaurant called River Rats in Eminence. Without skipping a beat, I asked our waitress, clad in flip flops and a tube top, "do you have a wine list?" It just came out. I didn't really mean to ask for wine on the Jack's Fork. She just stared at me. You adapt when you're in the Ozarks.) Hubbell writes of the time when her car needed repairs and the industrious mechanic fixed the gear shaft with a piece of bacon. Too, Hubbell is well-versed in natural history and simply a sheer delight to read.

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in Mansfield, Missouri while penning her Little House series. There's a recently rediscovered manuscript called Little House in the Ozarks that (I confess) I've flipped through (but will read in the course of this two week hiatus from dense non-fiction). Tours of her home in Mansfield are available for a small fee. Pa's fiddle is even on display there!

Thomas Pease Russell, born 1820, compiled a wonderful account of early pioneer life in the Ozark Highlands. In A Connecticut Yankee in the Frontier Ozarks, Russell interviews Ozarkers who recount encounters with Osage hunting tribes, bears, elk and who describe in beautiful detail a landscape untouched by European settlers. It's a little folksy, with lines like "Why, we used to get all the honey we wanted out of the woods. Way back fifty years ago, the woods were full of trees, but now we have to raise all our honey." Of course, they had to raise their honey because they hacked down every stinking tree that had bees in it...but it's a good book anyway.

Walter Schroeder's brilliant Opening the Ozarks: A Historical Geography of Missouri's Ste. Genevieve District 1760-1830 covers the French colonial period in the central Ozarks. The streets of Ste. Genevieve still resemble the small French settlements around Lafayette, Louisiana and Schroeder details the early history and natural features of the area better than anyone. It's a pretty academic book, but I read it on weekends when I lived near there. He uses survey records, early accounts, existing architectural features to pull together a complete history of the area. Fascinating.

Finally, Russell Gerlach's Immigrants in the Ozarks: A Study in Ethnic Geography catalogues each wave of immigrants as they settled in the Ozarks. Well-documented, thoroughly footnoted, Gerlach's book provides a thorough history beginning with the early fur trappers. Cultural diversity was alive and well in the Ozarks 100 years ago, as this book attests.

I'm taking book list suggestions for the rest of the summer. Requirements: I need something to read on the Oregon coast, in Alyssa's hammock, and on chert gravel riverbanks of the Ozarks.


Nathan said...

Fabulous photo, Allison. Did you take it, or was it Alyssa's hubby?

On a literary note, Lawrence, KS has Langston Hughes and Hunter S. Thompson. I've yet to dip into either. . .

Anonymous said...

The Earth is Enough