Origin of an Ozark Novel
Wed, 08/12/2020 - 12:26pm admin
If you are a writer, whether you’re John-Boy Walton of the TV series, The Waltons, or Tobias Wolf, author of the bestselling memoir, This Boy’s Life, your family and where you grew up provides a wealth of writing material.
It’s true for me growing up in the Ozarks. I still recall the images—almost like color photographs in my mind—and remember the aromas and the feelings with clarity. Often, the memories are common place and personal, such as the day in 1958 I rode with mill-worker and farmer, Johnny McVicker, in his Chevy pickup truck to the crossroads store in Montier. Why I remember it, I haven’t a clue, and I only recall riding with him one time.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see Johnny in bib overalls, a chambray work shirt, and well-worn high-top shoes, and in need of a shave. The smell of sweat and tobacco, from an ever-present cigarette hanging from his mouth, permeated the truck, even with both windows down on a sunny summer day. The floorboard of the truck, littered with loose tools and a Sinclair oil can, rattled when he shifted gears. I replicated this scene in my novel Geese to a Poor Market, albeit with the setting in Texas and a Mexican character named José.
One of my favorite characters in my novel is Ethan Collier, whom I often describe as a combination of Ernest T. Bass, the rock-chucking hillbilly with no social skills from The Andy Griffith Show, and Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 movie Rain Man. Really, the character Ethan is a combination of traits from two actual people, one from Montier and the other from Willow Springs.
In the 1950s, a hermit named Billy Barnes lived near Montier across the gravel road from my grandparents in a shack made from rough-sawn boards, with cracks chinked with newspaper. It might be better described as a toolshed. Inside, various implements of labor—hoes, shovels, rakes, a scythe—hung on the walls.
He had a small heating stove, which also served as a cookstove. Once, Grandpa got Billy to help him dig potatoes in our garden, and for his help, gave him a half-bushel of spuds. When Billy cooked them, he dumped the potatoes, dirt and all, in a pot and boiled them. I do not know if he had electricity, but his water came from a rock-walled cistern that was frequently home to ring-necked snakes. That cistern and the snakes show up in a scene at Ethan’s place.
Billy didn’t own a car, and I regularly saw him crouched forward, traipsing with an odd gait on his way to the country store a mile away. His appearance never changed: gray hair poked out over his ears and shirt collar from underneath a soiled railroad cap. His dirt-stained overalls always looked stiff from lack of washing.
Most people didn’t pay much attention to Billy, and some shied away from him—I didn’t because I took a plate of dinner to him every Sunday afternoon. All he said when I delivered the meal, and the only thing I remember him ever saying, was, “Much obliged.”
According to my grandmother, Billy wasn’t always a recluse. In fact, 40 years before he had been a dapper young man in the country community. With some admiration in her voice, she said he always wore a starched shirt. Billy had been engaged to be married, and showed up at the church, but his fiancé didn’t. And Billy was never the same afterwards.
The other dimension of Ethan was inspired by William Rothwell, one of eleven children of Howell County residents George and Mamie Rothwell, and my stepfather’s youngest brother.
I never met William, or Bill as he was known, but I heard stories from my stepfather about his brother’s remarkable mental abilities. He told me Bill could stand at the old railroad depot in Willow Springs and recite the names of all the boxcars of the trains after they passed through.
Perhaps, some of the stories about Bill are “urban legends,” but the 1939 Willamizzou quipped, “He’s got a memory, but he needs a girl.” One story, which I’ve heard from several sources, involves the police going to him after a local physician had been kidnapped in January 1937, to ask if he had seen any strange cars in town. He had supposedly committed most of the license plates in Willow to memory. As the story goes, he provided information, including license plate numbers, that was instrumental in capturing the perpetrators.
In a writers’ workshop I attended in the course of writing the novel, several women members insisted that I make a romantic connection between Ethan and another character, an attractive former cheerleader. I protested that it was unrealistic, but I finally agreed to try. As a result, Bill and Billy got another shot at romance in a chapter called Ethan and the Marquess of Queensbury.
A novel by definition is fictional and not autobiographical. Tobias Wolf in a 2003 interview for The Missouri Review, explained how the lines may blur. “I might use colors from the same palette and use experiences from my memory and my own life, but I take off. I’m not loyal to the facts or my own memory. I’m really inventing.”
In my experience, and I’ve heard it from other writers, too, if an actual event is included in fictional writing, that’s the part nobody believes. A writing instructor told me, “Just because something happened doesn’t mean it’s believable.”
People are sometimes curious about the meaning of the title, Geese to a Poor Market. It’s a saying I heard as a child, but I understand it may have originated in England and reached the Ozarks by way of Appalachia. Essentially, it means selling yourself or your goods for less than value. If a girl was marrying some rascal, folks would say, “She’s driving her geese to a poor market.” Similarly, I’d hear it from my parents if I was hanging out with the “wrong crowd.” As to the characters in the book, it’s relates to the choices they make.
As the late radio personality Paul Harvey might say, “Now, you know the rest of the story.”