Armchair America: Arkansas Through Books

February 27, 2015

Vintage postcard from Arkansas

Vintage postcard from Arkansas

I have never actually set foot in Arkansas, so it was a pleasure to read my way around the state and discover some of its essence through literature.  I knew that former President Bill Clinton hailed from Hope, Arkansas and that Maya Angelou grew up in Stamps, but I really knew very little about this part of America.  I learned that Arkansas played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement in the hard battle to integrate schools.  And that the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, believed to be extinct, focussed national attention on the importance of preserving wilderness and natural habitats.

Map of Arkansas

Map of Arkansas

Arkansas postcard extolling the "Natural State"

Arkansas postcard extolling the “Natural State”

I again consulted with a local reference librarian for book recommendations.  Robert, a librarian with the Central Arkansas Library System, consulted with some of his colleagues and sent me this list of suggested Arkansas titles:

Adult Fiction:

  • The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
  • Camp Nine: A Novel by Vivienne Schiffer
  • Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories by Ellen Gilchrist
  • True Grit by Charles Portis
  • A Really Cute Corpse by Joan Hess
  • Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Adult Nonfiction:

  • Cash: The Autobiography of Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr
  • Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High by Melba Pattillo Beals
  • Halfway from Hoxie: New and Selected Poems by Miller Williams


  • The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
  • Summer of My German Soldier by Bettye Green
  • Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou, paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Arkansas Stories by Charlie May Simon
  • Loop by Karen Akins (classified as young adult)
  • Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell (graphic novel)

Here are books about Arkansas or by Arkansas writers that I actually read on my armchair travels:

Adult Fiction:

The Lord God Bird by Tom Gallant.  This is the story of a middle-aged man, a widower, who lives alone in the Big Woods of Arkansas in a house his grandfather built.  We never learn his name, but he is “a solitary man with a bluetick hound named Paul, and a good working farm.”  One day while out on his hand-built canoe, he gets a glimpse of an ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird he remembers last seeing as a young boy and now thought to be extinct.  He realizes that the return of this elusive bird might revitalize his dying town and save the diminishing Big Woods habitat.  When he makes the sighting known, researchers from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology visit to find evidence that the bird is real — photos of course, but also sound tapes of its raps and kells, and markings on the trees such as scarred bark and nesting hollows.

Gallant imagines the bird’s point of view as well, a creature of long memory who has returned with his mate to see whether life would be viable in this long abandoned woods.  The pairs mate for life and need about 10 square miles of old growth forest to support life nourished by scavenging for grubs on dying trees.  But the search for food takes the birds farther from the nest every day.  “The whole fabric of life that was the Big Woods seemed to be diminished with each season that passed.  There was less of everything except for weather.  The rains were more violent, the winds carried more force, and the dry spells were more parched.  There was a great change happening, and the bird wished for a glimpse of the long-past panther.  That the cats were gone filled him with dread.  When the cats were there, they were dread made visible, the sleek and beautiful embodiment of mortal danger.  Life then was as it should be.  Now, danger seemed to be everywhere, and it had no face, except, perhaps, for humans.”

This fictionalized account of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker shows the mixed blessings this kind of attention attracts.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.  The ivory-billed woodpecker symbolizes life starting over, things coming back from the dead, and second chances, and that is the theme of this second title, which is catalogued as Young Adult fiction in my library.  Cullen Witter is a bored teenager living in Lily, a small town halfway between Little Rock and Memphis.  He says, “Living in Lily, Arkansas, is sometimes like living in the land that time forgot.”  He observed, “That’s what happened in Lily.  People dreamed.  People left. And they all came back.  It was like Arkansas’s version of a black hole, nothing could escape it.”

But starting with the first sentence of this novel — “I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body.” — the scene is set for changes in Lily.  There is a report of an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting, and like many people, Cullen wonders whether the whole thing is a scam:  “. . . our town needed that bird . . . They needed something to be hopeful about.”  And then Cullen’s younger brother Gabriel disappears without a trace.  Would the miracle of Lazarus bird’s return grace his brother’s return as well?

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield.  Each year the Moses family gathers on the first Sunday in June for its annual reunion on the old Arkansas farm.  The patriarch, John Moses, had long since retired from farming.  His wife Calla opened a convenience store called “Moses” on the remodelled front porch.  And John, in a pique after an argument with his wife, remodels the back porch into “Moses Never Closes,” where he served liquor “by donation.”

“And that’s the way things went along, right until the day John Moses died.  Moses Never Closes was something folks counted on.  It was a certain place in an uncertain world.  Folks wanted it to stay the way it was, because once you change one part of a thing, all the other parts begin to shift, and pretty soon, you just don’t know what’s what anymore.”

Change is set in motion during the 1956 reunion when John Moses takes a gun and kills himself.  His daughter Willadee, visiting from Louisiana, stays on to help out.  Her husband, Samuel Lake, loses his preaching job and moves with his daughter Swan to his in-laws’ farmhouse.  There he suffers a crisis of faith.  He is unable to find another preaching job, his wife is working in a bar, his oldest son is bullied and does not buy into his advice to turn the other cheek, his brother-in-law is becoming a beloved father figure to his kids, and his family is frustrated in protecting a neighbor boy from his abusive father.  This is a novel about the testing of faith, holding out for miracles, and the healing power of love.

A Painted House by John Grisham.  This is another novel about a multi-generational family in 1950s Arkansas.  Seven-year old Luke lives with his parents on his grandfather’s and grandmother’s farm.  They are cotton farmers who rent the land, and who have no higher aspirations than to make it from year to year without going under financially.  “The only farmers who made money were those who owned their land.  The renters, like us, tried to break even.  The sharecroppers had it worst and were doomed to eternal poverty.”

Luke’s mother harbored no illusions about this precarious life and she and Luke have an agreement that he will go to college and eventually leave the farm.  She had been raised on a small farm on the edge of town and was almost a town girl.  She never had to walk to school, and she had lived in a “painted house.”  She found her pleasures in the garden.

This novel takes place during the cotton picking season, when they hired itinerant hill people and migrant Mexicans in a race to pick the cotton before the fall rains.  Everyone pitched in, even Luke:  “My fingers would bleed, my neck would burn, my back would hurt.”  The hard work was relieved by small pleasures:  listening to the St. Louis Cardinal baseball games on the porch of an evening, Saturday excursions to town and the matinée movie, letters from an uncle in service in Korea,  a visiting carnival.  But secrets and tensions build during the harvest.  A 15-year old neighbor girl gives birth out of wedlock and it appears that Luke’s uncle is the father.  Luke witnesses one of the hill workers fight and beat a man to death.  And later he sees this man knifed by one of their Mexican workers.  The weather provides the final defeat, flooding the crop before the harvest is complete.

True Grit by Charles Portis.  This novel takes place in the 1870s on the edge of the frontier.  Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross hires Rooster Cogburn, “a man of true grit,” to avenge her father’s murder.  The murderer, Tom Chaney, a former hired hand, stole away into Indian territory, and Mattie is determined to track him down.  She’s resolute, single-minded, and a hard customer whose Old Testament morality gives her the backbone to keep Cogburn in line until her objective is realized.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.  This novel by an Arkansas author creates a world after death, a kind of way station where the inhabitants stick around only as long as they are remembered by someone on earth.  Then they disappear.  They stay the same age as when they died on earth, and they cannot reproduce.  So the population in this afterlife ebbs and grows in relation to events on earth — floods, wars, earthquakes, epidemics, etc.  Now people are disappearing at an alarming rate; it turns out there is a lethal virus killing off everyone on earth.  The few hangers on in the afterlife realize that their existence is tied to the life of perhaps the last person alive on earth — a researcher in remote Antarctica who has been abandoned there.  What will happen when she dies?

I liked this novel for opening my imagination.  I was raised Catholic, so am familiar with the concepts of limbo and purgatory but Brockmeier’s afterlife is different.  He doesn’t depict the people working to achieve any goal or release; they just seem to exist without worries, imagination, or urges to accomplish anything.  They don’t even seem to ruminate about what life on earth was all about.  Nor do they wonder about what happens next when they disappear from this temporary existence.  I thought the premise was interesting, but this alternative world was not fleshed out enough for me.

Strangled Prose by Joan Hess.  This is a rather light and formulaic mystery from the Claire Malone mystery series.  I do enjoy reading mysteries, and I thought this one might be interesting because Claire owns a bookstore in a college town in Arkansas.  But it failed to entice me to read any more books in this series.

Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer. This book tells “a story based on the improbability of nearly ten thousand Americans of Japanese descent suddenly appearing in the Arkansas Delta in the 1940s.”  The story of Camp Nine is told from the point of view of 12-year-old Chess Morton, the granddaughter of the wealthiest landholder in the area.  Hers was a world where unspoken rules shaped the interactions between blacks and whites, where everyone moved more slowly than the rest of the world:  ” . . . the Delta is mysterious, the kind of place where so many things happen that go unnoticed by the outside world.  The overwhelming stillness of the countryside and the oppressive flatness of the terrain, cleared almost entirely now of trees, slow the passage of time.  The air is molasses in summer, an iron blanket of cold in winter.  The vast landscape tricks the mind into thinking that gravity is somehow stronger here, that the bayous and the canebreaks can pin you against them so that even light can’t escape.”

The internment camp was an enterprise conducted in secret, and the Japanese American families were isolated behind barbed wire.  Most of the community conspired to pretend that there was nothing wrong with things that were kept out of sight:  ” . . . mostly, we separated ourselves from them, by refusing to acknowledge they were even there.”

Chess’s mother, something of an outcast herself, refuses to turn a blind eye.  She calls the Japanese American families her neighbors, and she begins teaching art classes to the children and adults in the camp.  Chess accompanies her and her experiences there open her eyes to a different world.  For one thing, the Japanese culture valued education, and even adults wanted to continue to learn new things.  She learns  more about racism and honor when she sees young Japanese American men look past what was done to them and go to fight and die in the American Army.

Almost 20 years later, Chess is visited by David Matsui, one of her camp friends.  He is now a renowned blues musician and lives in London because he cannot forgive the way Americans treated him and his family.  “I’m not white, Chess.  I always thought I was, growing up.  But I didn’t really know what white was until the United States government carved us out of the white race, set us on a plate, and served us up into a dark corner of Arkansas.  That’s when I learned what white really is.  It’s separate.  It’s sheltered.  It’s a race apart.”  Camp Nine is a bittersweet story, but well worth reading.

Adult Nonfiction

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose.  This is a nonfiction account of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in eastern Arkansas and the controversy that still surrounds the findings.  This magnificent woodpecker’s story is one of extinction due to habitat destruction.  It thrived in vast tracts of virgin forest where enough dead and dying trees provided its food.  Its disappearance occurred after the intense logging that began in the 1880s.

In 2004 Gene Sparling reported seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.  His sighting was confirmed and supported by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and other scientists.  Since then, the evidence has been challenged.

Regardless of their stance on the veracity of the ivory-billed woodpecker sightings, scientists and conservationists remain united and dedicated to preserving species by saving threatened habitats.  “To become extinct is the greatest tragedy in nature.”  The book states that 99 percent of all species that ever lived are now extinct, caused by everything from meteorites to drought.  But today’s massive extinctions are caused by humans.

Photographs of the Arkansas delta by Eugene Richards

Photographs of the Arkansas delta by Eugene Richards




Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down by Eugene Richards.  Richards, a northerner, first came to the Arkansas delta in 1959 as a VISTA volunteer, and his photographs document the dignity and endurance of its inhabitants.

“You cross the Mississippi into Arkansas, pass a few miles of strip malls, trunk stops, and motels and the landscape comes to look like an abstract painting, with wide, flat fields and the sky pressed together.  There’s a migrant worker camp north of the interstate peppered with bullet holes, tractors in the distance throwing off dust, farmhouses here and there, but no people that you can see.  It’s August and nothing much forces people indoors like the heat. . . . And as happens whenever you return to the delta, the space between things that came to pass long years ago and the way it is now begins to collapse.”

Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals. This young adult memoir tells the story of Melba Pattillo, one of the Little Rock Nine. She paints a picture of life under segregation: “Black folks aren’t born expecting segregation, prepared from day one to follow its confining rules. Nobody presents you with a handbook when you’re teething and says, ‘Here’s how you must behave as a second-class citizen.’ Instead, the humiliating expectations and traditions of segregation carry over you, slowly stealing a teaspoon of your self-esteem every day.” Pattillo watched adults in her family kowtow to white people, a shameful and humiliating and threatened existence.

The Little Rock Nine shared some things in common: they came from hard-working families (some parents, including Pattillo’s mother, were teachers); they were church-goers; they planned on going to college. Pattillo’s grandmother was a strong support and influence, and she taught: “We are not these bodies, we are spirits, God’s ideas. But you must strive to be the best of what God made you. You don’t want to be white, what you really want is to be free, and freedom is a state of mind.”

Without the support of Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, other Black activists like Thurgood Marshall, community leaders, and the soldiers who were in the school to protect them, the Little Rock Nine would likely have been subverted from attending school. The reprisals, physical and mental attacks inside the school, threats to family members, and mob rule were insidious. Pattillo’s New Year’s resolution for 1958 was, “To do my best to stay alive until May 28” (when the school year ended). They persevered because they simply could not let the segregationists win. And where we are today is the result of their courage.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angleou.  Angelou was born in California, but at the age of three she was sent, accompanied only by her four-year-old brother, across country to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas.  This was a segregated small town, and she really didn’t see white folks as a child:  “Crossing the Black area of Stamps which childhood’s narrow measure seemed the whole world, we were obligated by custom to stop and speak to every person we met. . . ”

“People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream.”

Angelou’s grandmother owned the Black general store.  “Her world was bordered on all sides with work, duty, religion, and ‘her place.'”

At age seven, Angelou and her brother were taken to live with their mother in St. Louis where they were immersed in urban culture — store-bought food, numbers runners, gamblers, lottery takers, whiskey salesmen, and “shockingly bad” schools.  Angelou also got her first library card.  At age eight, Angelou was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend and then raped.  He was brought to trial, found guilty, given a one year suspended sentence, and then murdered.  Angelou, already traumatized by the rape, now felt responsible in some way for the death of this man.  With the sense that words were dangerous, she stopped talking.  And was sent back to Stamps.

There she found a lifeline in Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a model for the kind of woman Angelou wanted to be.  “She was one of the first gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be. . . . It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself.”

Flowers gave her lessons in living and books to read, and challenged her to read aloud:  “Your grandmother says you read a lot.  Every chance you get.  That’s good, but not good enough.  Words mean more than what is set down on paper.  It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”

Angelou stayed in Stamps until her eighth grade graduation, and the rest of her memoir tells about her move to San Francisco to live with her mother during high school.  And it ends with her teen pregnancy and the birth of her son.  This is the story of a woman who overcomes tremendous life challenges to become a gifted writer and artist of life.

Halfway from Hoxie by Miller Williams.  I find reading poetry a challenge.  So many poems are inscrutable and hard to penetrate.  I guess I just don’t want to work that hard to enjoy literature.  So I won’t even attempt to review the poems in this volume, but instead will share one from the collection:

“Depot in a River Town”

In the depot and the darkened day
the clack of an old pinball machine
demands a curious notice.
More sleeping than not
a satchel faced farmer makes noises.
A sailor circles like a child in church.

In the depot and the darkened day
I surrender my back to the imperative bench,
unlistening hear the emphatic pencil
tap itself on the table.

The little blond reads
and fingers the cloth of her blouse
like a nun telling beads.

Cracked across after an ancient painting
the face of the woman with children
ignores and ignores.
There is fog at the windows
and the open doors.

Within the ear’s rim rises a separate sound.
Wood slapping side slipping water sounds
settle me deep.
I feel again the penny in my pocket
and the slow sleep of the river
wraps me round.

Little Rock Girl

Little Rock Girl

Juvenile Books

Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration by Shelley Tougas.  In 1954 a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education, found that the practice of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional.  As a result, schools in the south were forced to integrate.

Elizabeth Eckford, a 15-year-old student, was one of nine African American teenagers who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School on September 4, 1957.  Although their admittance was allowed by federal judges, the Arkansas governor ordered that the Arkansas National Guard block entry.  The vitriolic confrontation was recorded by photographer Will Counts, an image that captured the deep roots of racism in the south.

The nine Black students were prevented from attending school that day, but President Eisenhower brought in the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the federal order.  So integration happened, but subject to bullying, torment, taunting and attacks.  The next year the governor closed all of Little Rock’s public high schools rather than allow integration to move forward.

This book is a testimony to the courage, perseverance, and resilience of nine teenagers and the community of Civil Rights activists who wrought needed change.  An update on the fates of the “Little Rock Nine” reveals a group of extraordinarily accomplished adults — at least five with master’s degrees.

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green.  Patty is a 12-year-old Jewish girl from Jenkensville, Arkansas.  She feels unloved by her parents, whom she can never please.  But the tensions with her parents are offset somewhat by the loving care of their Black housekeeper, Ruth, and her maternal grandparents.

The town becomes the base for a semi-secret camp for German POWs, and Patty crosses paths with a young POW named Anton.  When he escapes from the camp, Patty hides him for a while and then helps him to escape.  Anton is a scholar and a former medical student and Patty thrives under conversations with him.  They discuss whether the world will ever become a good place, and Anton says, “I believe that love is better than hate.  And that there is more nobility in building a chicken coop than in destroying a cathedral.”

When he leaves, Patty is heart-broken to lose a friend.  He gives her an heirloom gold ring with these words: “Even if you forget everything else I want you to always remember that you are a person of value, and you have a friend who loved you enough to give you his most valued possession.”

Anton departs, but Patty later hears that he was shot dead by police in New York City while trying to avoid arrest.  When the FBI investigates his escape, they learn of Patty’s role, and she is sent to reform school for actions.  Another powerful story about a strong young woman.

Double-paged spread from Life Doesn't Frighten Me

Double-paged spread from Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

from Life Doesn't Frighten Me

from Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou.  Paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat illustrate this poem by Maya Angelou.  The poem is a celebration of fearlessness in the face of life’s scary things, both real and imagined.

You can link to my earlier posts from my armchair travels across America here:


8 Responses to “Armchair America: Arkansas Through Books”

  1. Elisa Says:

    Wow! That is a lot of trashy type living and death and suffering and poverty. I couldn’t have read those books. Did you enjoy them?

    • Elisa Says:

      oh wait! i searched! They DO have Garvan Woodland Gardens and Hot Springs National Park.

    • Rosemary Says:

      I went back to my post to see if I was giving a “trashy” impression, because that is not at all what I intended. I think of the characters as gritty, hard-working, and persevering — seems an honest way to live a hard-scrabble life in a cotton-farming community. Any farming life is difficult and precarious. I would recommend all of the books except the Joan Hess mystery. All were well written and important. So far I am not regretting in any way my investment in reading books about the states. Someday I hope to travel to Arkansas.

      • Elisa Says:

        Oh no. I hadn’t seen my comments to be at all diminishing to your writing. We had farming here that wasn’t so much death and drama. Now, possibly, I ought to try locating and reading your selections. I grew up around coal miners and such and that kind of life, and life choices are awful for me to flashback to. So, I definitely wouldn’t want to choose to read about it. IT made me think stereotypically of the state itself. I’ll try the reading. Thanks for answering. Oh, and my gramma’s house had no electricity in it until I was 12. The stone quarry was right across the road. The only toilet in the house for a long time, after she decided to allow one at all, was in the section of the basement in the workshop outside of the root cellar. We cooked apple butter and large batches of soup to can on the inside wood fired stove in a large cauldron outside in the yard. I suppose from the outside by today’s standards, that sort of living was hard. My mother was a snob and felt or worried that things weren’t good enough. I do not recall back then understanding why she felt that way or why some at the schools would tease…I really hope that I didn’t upset you. I truly was curious if I was to get that sort of idea. I keep typing as my words are not helping! 🙂

  2. shoreacres Says:

    I think your selection is fine, but I think your own perspective on life probably influenced your selection. It’s possible to create any sort of image of a place by a selection of details, and while this is certainly one valid view of Arkansas, it’s not a view that comes to mind when I think of the state.

    Of course, when it comes to prejudices (or opinion, perhaps) I have my own, and one of my opinions is that Maya Angelou is highly over-rated, so there’s that.

    I guess I need to get after all the Arkansas stuff I still have in my files, so you can have another view of the state. I will confess, however, that the only time I ever came across an overturned chicken-hauling truck, it was in Arkansas. And the funniest experience my mother and I ever had in a restaurant — or maybe, anywhere — was in Arkansas. It’s one of those places that can be so easily stereotyped, and dismissed.

    • Rosemary Says:

      I would love to hear your recommendations for Arkansas titles that are more true to your vision of the state. Someday I hope to travel there and make my own impressions.

      • Rosemary Says:

        And any agricultural community has changed so very, very much in my lifetime. If I were to write about growing up on a Minnesota farm, my story would be nothing like life today. We were much more isolated and poor — one car for a family of eleven. Who even has one car in their households today? One TV. And it had only three or four channels.

  3. […] journey across America through books.  Having read my way through Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, and Arkansas, today I am making a detour to Nebraska in preparation for an upcoming trip to see the sandhill […]

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