Missouri Noir

I grew up in southern Missouri, a part of the country notorious in recent years for the epidemic of methamphetamine production and addiction the region has faced. Missouri, though, also contains a lot of natural beauty and a rich history. Daniel Woodrell, a novelist born and raised in the Missouri Ozarks, sets much of his work in this region and eloquently captures these contradictions. He obviously loves the Ozarks, and even as his stories focus on the dark underbelly of rural poverty and crime, they evoke a vivid sense of place and culture. He uses the term “country noir” to describe his work, which fits it perfectly. His characters all inhabit a world set apart from the mainstream culture and often apart from the mainstream economy. Even though they live in a world where poverty, desperation, and violence are common, his characters are so well-realized that they draw you in despite their often extreme circumstances.

 ImageThe film version of “Winter’s Bone” was my first exposure to Daniel Woodrell, and I sought out the book soon after. It centers on Ree Dolly, a teenager growing up in the Missouri backwoods. Her mother is suffering from mental illness and her father is in and out of jail for cooking meth, so it is up to her to care for her two young siblings. When her father puts their land and house up for bail and disappears, Ree sets out to find him in order to save their home and the wooded property that has been in her family for generations. Her search takes her on a dangerous hunt through a hostile web of extended family and drug connections.  It is one of the few cases where I think a movie adaptation lives up to the novel, as both are equally compelling. The movie streamlines the story into a tense thriller, while the novel takes time to meander and develop the relationships between the characters. Ree is a fierce and sympathetic heroine, determined to find out what happened to her father despite the warnings and violence she encounters.

 “Give Us a Kiss”, one of Woodrell’s earlier novels, centers on a writer not unlike Woodrell himself. Feeling Imagedown on his luck after experiencing downturns in his marriage and his writing career, Doyle Redmond heads home to the Ozarks in his wife’s stolen Volvo to track down his law-evading older brother. He finds him living deep in the woods with plans for a drug operation that promises a big score, and Doyle, being in need of some cash, decides to help out. There’s a hitch in the plan, however, when the Dolly family, enemies of the Redmond’s since Civil War days, start making trouble. Doyle is drawn into a fierce battle of family loyalties and long-held grudges, sinking deeply into a violent conflict he thought he had avoided. While not short on tension or suspense, Doyle’s story is told in an appealing and often quite humorous first-person narrative that makes for a quick and entertaining read.

ImageWoodrell’s most recent book is “The Outlaw Album”, a collection of twelve short stories published in 2011 that continues his literary exploration of people living on the fringes of society.  The characters are all living hardscrabble lives in the Ozarks but each face their own unique source of inner turmoil. They range from a man who has murdered his neighbor for killing his wife’s beloved pet, a Vietnam veteran coming to terms with killing another veteran in self-defense, to a grieving father of a missing daughter who can’t shake his suspicion that one of his fellow townspeople must be responsible for her disappearance. Whatever their specific situations, the characters are portrayed as having an immense capacity for both violence and tenderness.  This duality makes the stories very poignant and sometimes darkly humorous as well.

These works by Woodrell paint a striking picture of rural Missouri and of self-reliant people facing the challenges of high poverty rates, social isolation, and limited opportunity. While he does focus on one grim slice of Missouri life, his characters ring true. Their manner of speaking, their hardships, and their culture remind me of people I have known in my own life. Despite the dark themes, the vulnerability of the characters and Woodrell’s unique poetic style render his stories compelling, entertaining, and often very moving.

Memoirs, from heartbreaking to hilarious.

A memoir is a form of autobiography, one that is often less formal and more of a remembrance (as the name suggests), although the terms are often used interchangeably. Memoirs are one of my favorite types of non-fiction because the variety within the genre reflects the great diversity of human experiences. While many memoirs are written by celebrities or powerful figures, my favorites are stories of everyday people. One common focus of this type of memoir is family and upbringing. Everyone is shaped in some way, for better or worse, by their family of origin and this is evident when people tell their life stories. I recently read three new memoirs that focus on the authors’ formative family lives, each with their own unique perspective.

ImageJeanette Winterson’s memoir “Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal” takes the reader along on her heart-wrenching journey to become the award-winning novelist she is today. The driving force behind her story is her conflict with her mother. Adopted as a baby, Jeanette was raised by the devoutly Pentecostal Mrs.Winterson, a stern and powerful figure who relished self-denial and doled out frequent punishment. As a small child Jeanette fit well into Mrs. Winterson’s religious plan, but as she grew their relationship became contentious. Jeanette loved to read and wanted to become a writer, but Mrs. Winterson forbade all books except for religious texts. The real break in their relationship came, though, when Mrs. Winterson discovered her daughter was dating a woman, which prompted the question posed in the title. As a result, Jeanette leaves home as a teenager in order to realize her dream of education and happiness, but it is never an easy path and she never fully escapes the shadow of her relationship with her mother.

Kambri Crews focuses on her experience growing up in a family that consisted of two deaf parents and two hearingImage  children in her new memoir “Burn Down the Ground”. Kambri straddled both the hearing and deaf communities, often helping her parents navigate the hearing world. Her parents were part of a close-knit Deaf community, and they were always the life of the party. Despite their fun-loving appearance, her parents had a volatile relationship and her father was fighting his own demons. When Kambri was seven, her family moved to remote rural Texas to build a new life in the woods, but problems persist. Kambri idolizes her handsome and charming father, and does not realize the extent of the problems facing her family until much later when she comes face to face with his violent behavior. Kambri struggles to reconcile her childhood memories of him with the legacy he leaves her family.

ImageOn a much lighter note, “Let’s Pretend this Never Happened: a Mostly True Memoir” by Jenny Lawson looks back at her childhood through a humorous lens. Growing up poor in rural Texas with an eccentric taxidermist for a father left Jenny with many experiences that, while alternately mortifying and terrifying at the time, are laugh out loud funny from a distance. While Jenny just wanted to fit in, things like angry turkeys following her to school, dead animal hand puppets, and shoes made from bread sacks inevitably set her apart. Eventually she realizes that embracing the absurdity is the only logical choice, but she yearns for a more urban life, preferably one that involves fewer animal carcasses. As an adult, however, living in an urban area with her husband and small daughter, she decides she misses it and wants to move back to raise her daughter near her parents. This return leads to a new batch of adventures, told in Lawson’s relatable and hilarious style.

While these memoirs all focus on the ways that families shape our character, they are very different reading experiences. Memoirs are great because whatever your reading interests are, there is probably one out there that will appeal to you. Just ask a librarian if you need suggestions!

To the river!

Rivers have long been a recurring theme in American literature. Given that rivers have played such a large role in the development of the United States, it’s not surprising that they occupy space in our literary imagination. Rivers meant freedom and transportation, but could also be treacherous to those who lived near them and traveled on them. Mark Twain is perhaps the most famous American author who has written about life on a river, but this theme continues in more modern literature as well. Both “Once Upon a River” by Bonnie Jo Campbell and “Edge of Dark Water” by Joe R. Lansdale are recent novels that explore the possibilities and danger of the river, with heroines who harken back to the adventurous spirit of Huck Finn.

ImageIn “Once Upon a River”, sixteen-year-old Margo Crane has grown up along the Stark River in rural Michigan. She lives a rather isolated life with her father, not far from her extended family. When her father is killed and family turmoil breaks out, Margo takes to the river in the rowboat her grandfather left her. Her plan is to track down her mother, who abandoned the family years before. The river is where Margo feels safe and at home, but she is young and vulnerable and the river, and the people encountered on it, can be very dangerous. Thankfully she has a deep knowledge of the river and some other key strengths, namely her shooting skills, to draw upon. Despite the fact that she is a teenager in the 1970s, her hero is Annie Oakley and Margo is teaching herself to be a sharpshooter. Her journey through the backwoods of Michigan takes her through the paths of many eccentric characters living outside the mainstream, people living off the grid either by choice or because of poverty and circumstance. While in many ways an epic adventure, Once Upon a River is also a poignant character study of a strange and willful young woman seeking a way to live the kind of life she wants outside the trappings of society.

“Edge of Dark Water” has another young woman taking to the river to escape a bad situation. It all startsImage the day Sue Ellen finds the body of her friend May Lynn in the river near her house. May Lynn had been murdered and her body left in the river, weighed down by an old sewing machine. May Lynn had always dreamed of leaving her river shack for the bright lights of Hollywood, and Sue Ellen and her friends Terry and Jinx decide to take her there. There’s nothing for them where they are anyway, as Sue Ellen has to dodge her drunken father on a daily basis, Terry is an outcast in town for being considered a “sissy boy”, and Jinx chafes at the harsh racism of 1930s Texas. Soon they are on a wild ride down the river on an old raft with May Lynn’s ashes in a jar, some stolen money, and a few extra passengers. In pursuit of them (and the money) are the corrupt local lawman, Sue Ellen’s father, and a crazed killer known as Skunk that until recently Sue Ellen thought was just a story. On top of their pursuers, they have the river itself to contend with, with its hidden snakes, currents, and whirlpools. Like Margo, the group encounters many strange people along the way, only some of whom can be trusted to help. Edge of Dark Water is a dark and atmospheric journey, bringing to mind not just the work of Mark Twain but also the modern horror style of Stephen King.

Both Margo and Sue Ellen, like Huck and many others before them, see the river as the natural escape route from difficult lives, a powerful avenue leading to new possibilities. The river is a challenging force of nature, though, demanding more from them than they bargained for and ultimately helping them forge their own paths into adulthood.

Coming-of-age novels.

Many readers have a particular book that they read early in life and revisit frequently and for me that book is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. This book resonated with me as a child, and continues to do so, because of the strength of the main character, Francie Nolan. I found echoes of Francie in Rory Dawn Hendrix, the protagonist of Girlchild, a recently published novel by Tupelo Hassman. Both of these coming-of-age novels depict resourceful heroines transcending rough circumstances through strength of character and a love of reading, with a little help from libraries along the way.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a semi-autobiographical novel first published in 1943. It tells the story of Francie Nolan, who is 11 years old when the novel opens in 1912. Francie lives in a tenement in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which at the time was populated with a vibrant mix of immigrants from a variety of cultures, living in crowded conditions and often grueling poverty. The author grew up in that neighborhood herself, and paints a vivid picture of the Brooklyn she experienced. Francie lives with her younger brother, her hard-working mother, and her father, a gentle and charming man who is an alcoholic. Francie and her brother spend their days on the rough streets of Brooklyn, hunting for trash they can trade in for pennies to help with the family expenses. Francie’s one escape from the stress and harsh realities of her life is reading. She spends her free time alone on her fire escape with a stack of library books, and makes a resolution to read every book in her small local library in alphabetical order. Books are an escape for Francie in more ways than one, as the education she obtains from reading on her own later enables her to attend college despite the fact that she was not able to attend high school.

In Girlchild, Rory Dawn Hendrix lives with her mother and grandmother in Calle de las Flores, a desperately poor trailer park on the outskirts of Reno. Her mother works nights at The Truck Stop and Rory is often left in the care various neighbors, some of whom are not as trustworthy as her mother assumes. At school, Rory and the other kids from “the Calle” are shunned and demeaned by other students, and often neglected by teachers. Rory, however, has grown up with a mother who loves books and she takes advantage of the books that line their trailer walls. She reads constantly, and one of her favorites is The Girl Scout Handbook. While Rory isn’t an official Girl Scout, she adapts the advice outlined in the book to her own circumstances. She also finds solace with the school librarian, who is the one person at school who sees her potential and encourages her beyond the low expectations the school has set for her as just another dirty kid from the Calle. Despite the sometimes dark subject matter, Hassman’s prose is wry and creative, and shines with the humor that is often a necessity in hard times. Like Francie, Rory Dawn’s ability to imagine a life beyond the poverty that surrounds her is the first step to making her way to something better.

It’s easy to see why Francie’s story resonated with me so much as a child, and why Rory Dawn’s does today. I was a bookish kid who read indiscriminately and made many trips to and from my local public library. While I didn’t experience the crushing poverty depicted in these stories, I grew up in a working-class family with six children, so there was a certain amount of chaos at home and money was tight. Books helped me broaden my view of the world beyond my small Missouri town and to carve out a quiet place of my own. Both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Girlchild are touching stories of girls forging paths for themselves in an often uncaring world. They are testaments to imagination and will, and to the power that books and libraries have to open up the world for their readers.