I was excited to get to Arkansas on my reading-road-trip of the US. Despite my mom living in Blytheville for a couple of years when she was growing up, I knew nothing about Arkansas except that President Bill Clinton hailed from that state. I couldn’t even locate it on the map.
Now, I know that Arkansas borders Louisiana in the south, Oklahoma in the west, and Missouri in the north, and the Mississippi River marks Arkansas’s eastern border with Tennessee and Mississippi. What fascinates me about its geography, and I saw this reflected in the books I read, is that Arkansas is both a Southern state – with deep South sensibilities and a history of cotton, slavery, and Baptist faith – and a Western frontier state with outlaws and cowboys and a border with the Indian Territory. Its literature reflects both of these histories: True Grit is bandits and gunslinging (with one of the best female protagonists in the Old West), Ark of Bones is the smoldering legacy of slavery, and The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is rural riverbanks, biscuits, and the family of a preacher man.
Novel: True Grit
Author: Charles Portis, born 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas
Setting: 1870s Dardanelle, Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory
True Grit, set in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory in the years just after the Civil War, when Texas Rangers chased fugitives in Indian Territory and the frontier was pushing west, is the story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl who seeks a man “with grit” to help her apprehend the man who killed her father.
Mattie Ross is one of the most endearing female characters I have come across – not because she is sweet-natured and charming, but just the opposite: she is hard and blunt. It does not take long to figure out who in the book is the one with True Grit:
“You are impudent.”
“I do not wish to be, sir, but I will not be pushed around when I am in the right.”(Mattie)
“You have misjudged me if you think I am silly enough to give you a hundred dollars and watch you ride away.” (Mattie)
“I had not the strength nor the inclination to bandy words with a drunkard. What have you done when you have bested a fool?” (Mattie)
Before reading this book, before I even knew True Grit was a book, I watched the John Wayne movie of the same title. The movie tickled me – I loved the characters and the wandering through Indian Territory in pursuit of a murderer – but then when I read the book less than a month afterward, I heard the actor’s voices when I read their lines, and I saw their faces as the characters moved through the story. The movie was very true to the book, so that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – I was delighted to see some of my favorite lines in the movie were quoted directly from Portis’s pages:
“I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.” (Mattie to Rooster when he offered her whiskey)
- it’s more that I’m not sure what my experience of the book would have been had I not seen the movie first. It is unusual for me to experience literature in that order: movie then book. It is almost always the other way around. Either way, both stand up as everything you want from a rolicking Western tale: drunkards, bandits, campfires and horses, and frontier women with sand and true grit.
Collection: Ark of Bones and Other Stories
Author: Henry Dumas, born 1934 in Sweet Home, Arkansas
Setting: 1950s and 60s Arkansas and Harlem, New York
Categories: African American Literature, Short Stories
Ark of Bones and Other Stories is a collection of nine short stories by Henry Dumas, an Arkansas native whose family moved to Harlem, New York when he was ten. These stories, some set in Arkansas and some set in Harlem, are dark and smoky, and are infused with mojo and a deep spirituality. His characters and his ghostly magic were refreshing to me in their differentness: the strong, male, African American voice was not strictly of the here and now; there was an ancientness to it, as if these stories came up from the depths of the earth and through a long line of African-rooted souls. Spirit magic swirls thorughout the stories, as in “Ark of Bones”, when the Mississippi River rises to carry the Ark – Noah’s Ark? our character wonders – to Headeye, a chosen one from Arkansas:
“Only river people know how to talk to the river when it’s mad. I watched the light on the waves way upstream where the old Sippi bend, and I could tell that she was movin faster. Risin.”
At the same time, in “Boll of Roses” Dumas paints beautiful, earthy scenes of his Arkansas roots:
“That little brown girl bout the prettiest thing I ever seen in a cotton field.”
“He was off the porch, into the sun, passing the garden, when the smell of cotton… then the rose garden, and then wet dew…”
Never far from the surface is the struggle of the young black man in the pre-Civil Rights South – the struggle to escape the vicious cycle of servitude, of poverty, of ignorance, and the cotton fields that kept him shackled to all three:
“He felt ashamed of staying out of school just to pick cotton.”
Ark of Bones and Other Stories reminds us that many Southern blacks were still stuck in the cotton fields as recently as the 1960s, missing school, missing out on education, so that they could eat. Unlike farmers’ children, whose lives look the same during harvest time, pickers do not own the land, they do not own the cotton, they cannot sell the cotton. There aren’t more hours in the day to earn more money, there are not opportunities to get ahead, to educate themselves, to move on to something better. Not until the Civil Rights movement:
“‘I picked cotton all my life, chopped, planted, cleared land, and I aint got nothin to show for it. You younguns oughta get out of the field and get with them rights people. They got the Lord on their side.'”
These are important stories. They are vivid reminders of not just our history, but our recent history, and the effect this history has on a significant portion of the American population.
For more about Ark of Bones, please see Arkansas woes, post-Goldfinch spiral, and Henry Dumas is my savior.
Novel: The Homecoming of Samuel Lake
Author: Jenny Wingfiled, born Fountain Hill, Arkansas
Setting: 1950s Columbia County, Arkansas
Categories: Southern Literature, Southern Gothic, Christian Fiction?
Set in 1950s southern Arkansas, The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is reminiscent of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: it is a story of both vileness and tender beauty, told from the perspective a a spunky eleven-year-old girl.
Swan Lake is the daughter of Methodist preacher Samuel Lake, and though the novel shows us the lives of the adults, and bedrooms, and other people’s homes, it is Swan who is the heroine of this story. Normally Swan and her brothers move every year when their father is transferred to a new parsonage, but this year he has been let go all together. He has no church, and the Lakes move from Louisiana back to Arkansas, to the childhood farm home of Willadee, Samuel’s wife and the children’s mother.
The summer is filled with the antics of children, as summers should be, but it is also filled with tensions: seduction, suicide, Samuel’s feeling he has been abandoned by god, and most stomach-turning, the entry of Ras Ballenger, a cruel child-beater of a man. The characters are entertaining, the plot is well-paced, and the narrative, while sometimes making me hold my breath, gave me a sense of hope. Wingfield does a wonderful job with the landscape of southern Arkansas, and she made me nostalgic for my grandparent’s farm in middle Georgia; I felt at home on the banks of the creek, in the woods, on the land as if I were eleven again, ranging Grandaddy and Nannie’s hills:
“He stood out in the yard, sucking in air tat smelled of damp earth and autumn, and he wondered why people even had houses.”
“I think sitting in the backyard watching the kids catch lightning bugs is a pretty good way of worshipping God every once in a while.”
For a large portion of the book I wondered if The Homecoming of Samuel Lake would be considered Christian fiction – it is unflinching and unapologetic in placing God and Christ, church and faith at the center of Samuel Lake’s life – but by the end of the book I wasn’t sure if that was enough to classify it as Christian lit. There are miracles and Samuel Lake’s faith, but there are many “good” characters who don’t give a whit about religion, who don’t share Samuel’s fervor, and who are treated just as well by the author without depending on Christ to get them through. Because I have never read Christian fiction, I was curious about the author’s intention, and when asked in an interview about her reaction to some reviewers labeling it as such, she answered, “To Samuel, God is as real as his wife and children are, and nothing is more important…None of the other characters care one way or the other about religion…This is not a religious story. It’s a story with one main character who is deeply religious.”
The Homecoming of Samuel Lake was a compelling read that kept me turning pages.
For more about The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, please see Poor preacher’s child.
For further reading in Arkansas:
Books I have read and can recommend:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
Daisy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Janis Kearney
Cotton Field of Dreams by Janis Kearney
Butterfly Weed by Donald Harington
The Choiring of the Trees by Donald Harington
The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks by Donald Harington
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.