How Much Ozarks Is In Me?

Two hours before beginning this essay we had yet another encounter with residents of the meth house on the corner, our nearest neighbor to the west. The lead male over there is a cutter, dozens of little slashes have made risen scars on his arms. He has a ponytail, is known well by all cops in town, and never wears a shirt. He accused us of “eyeballing” him as we passed his house, something we have no choice but to do many times a day. The derelict shack has in the past been home to sex criminals, rapists, and pedophiles, other meth users, and some criminals who would have to be called general practitioners—whatever crime looks easiest tonight is what they will be arrested for tomorrow. Meth-heads are the worst to deal with. They are unpredictable and frequently violent after they’ve been sleepless for a few days. We are dedicated to minding our own business about most things, legal or not so much, but cooking meth releases toxins and is a peril to the whole neighborhood. A decade ago there were several houses much like this operating nearby, but they’ve been weeded down to this, the last one, and these tweakers should start packing.

My mother was born less than a hundred yards from my house. She was of the first generation raised in town and played in my yard as a child. I can see the roof of her father’s place from the porch when the leaves are down. Both sides of my family have been in the Ozarks a long time. It was hard from the beginning to eke out a living from thin dirt and wild game, and it stayed hard. The Woodrell side (surnames Mills, Terry, Dunahew, and Profitt) has been here a bit longer than the Daily side (Davidson, DeGeer, Riggs, Shannon). Woodrells arrived on this continent around 1690 and settled in these parts during the 1830s, after Kentucky and Tennessee became too gussied up and easily governed for their taste. The early white settlers came here to avoid the myriad restraints that accompany civilization: sheriffs, taxes, social conformity. They sought isolation. There has never been much belief in the essential fairness of a social order that answers most readily to gold, always assumed the installed powers were corrupt and corruptible, hence to be shunned and avoided, except when you couldn’t and must pay them.

A Davidson ancestor did kill a man in the center of town, before many witnesses, and land, livestock, everything that could be sold had to be sold to buy him out of a conviction, which was done. He’d killed his long-time pal, a man who beat him always in the wrestling contests featured at most picnics, then they got drunk on Washington Avenue and decided to wrestle again in the street. Davidson won this time, as the other man could not stand unaided, and is alleged to have pulled his pistol in victory and said as he shot the pal at his feet, “Now I finally whupped you, I might as well kill your ass, too.” Once the money was spent, this became an act of self-defense and he never did a week in jail. That was over a century ago, but we still remember, and the family of the dead man does, too—as late as the 1970s there was friction when my older brother dated a girl with their name.

ClassicI was raised on such stories in exile, and the old stories get rubbed together plenty in the retelling, dates and facts become blended. Did such and such happen in 1885, 1965, or not at all? Is that a DeGeer story or a Dunahew? The violent stories are the first I remember. They are many and fed me as a boy, but now I am more taken with how Grandma Mills lost a slice of nose to disease, how Dad got that patch of skin torn from his leg as a boy when barbed wire snagged him after he’d raided a garden for melons and the gardener spotted him, how Granddad Daily rode a mule to church in the 1920s because he wanted to impress girls. I like trains in the night, dogs baying after coons, the long hours when the wind sings as it channels between hills and hollers and flies along creek beds. I’ve known a thousand plain kindnesses here. It is generally a pleasure to live among so many individuals who refuse to understand even the simplest of social rules if they find them odious. This trait can, of course, raise trouble. I have had a few close relatives do time in the penitentiary, some recently, not for being thieves ever, but always for refusing to take each and every piddling law seriously—trouble is bound to happen once in a while when you love life so wildly.

I believe I became a writer because of my grandmother Woodrell. She was proud that she had attended school to the completion of third grade, but was not quite literate. She worked as a domestic: maid, cook, housekeeper. My grandfather was a drunken bum and fled the family when Dad was tiny. Grandma toted three sons alone, one with leukemia, all hungry, hungry, hungry. At age nine my father became the sole support of the family. Uncle Mills James went off to the Navy, and Uncle Alfred was dying in the main room of the house, so Grandma left work to care for him. Dad carried paper routes, was a rack-boy in a pool hall, where he often slept to avoid hearing his beloved brother fight so hard for breath. On weekends he was given over to a Polish farm family, and he loved them and his days spent there, named me for their son, killed in the war. Dad never turned mean and he never turned criminal, though among his favorite memories from childhood was the one of the night when there was a tapping at his window and the adult Cousin C asked the boy to aid him in escaping the area, for good, and it was done and recounted gleefully. Could scarcely be a rougher upbringing, but Dad found books somehow and dove in deeply, reading whenever still for a moment. War introduced him to the wider world and better libraries, and he liked an awful lot of what he saw and read. It has always been difficult to earn a living in the Ozarks, each generation winnowed as folks depart on the Hillbilly Highway to Detroit, Houston, Cincinnati, Kansas City—Steve Earle sings a great song about this. When I was a toddler Dad took us on the Hillbilly Highway to St Louis so he might earn a decent living there and seek the education he’d dreamed about. He had three sons, a six-hundred-square-foot cracker-box house, with never fewer than five residents, sometimes seven. He worked all day selling metal and for years went to night college at Washington University. I have so many memories of him, a complete grown up, doing homework at the kitchen table, empty beer cans shoved aside as he studied, smoke billowing from his Pall Malls. I always thought homework and school were great privileges. I loved literature young and haven’t been able to kick the habit yet. I think illiterate Grandma put something important into Dad that changed the future for all his sons who cared to notice. At twenty-three I declared that I would be a writer or a nightmare, and he said, “Let’s hope the writing pans out.”

The military is always there for us. I left school at sixteen (I did eventually return and linger there until degrees attached) and joined the marines the week I turned seventeen. I’d been in a little trouble, the kind teenage boys with jaunty attitude problems are wont to find. The Marine Corps was fun—I liked an awful lot of it, was about to be promoted to corporal, but I did sometimes display a peasant reluctance to take orders, which was not well received. Drugs played a part, too, as Vietnam veterans in the barracks introduced me to various dopes, and I liked every flavor I tried. Still do, but I don’t. They called me “profoundly antisocial” on my discharge, but who gives a damn what they think?

Richland Christian Cemetery 10.24.2006Two blocks from my home there is a big old cemetery, and in its acres many relatives are at rest. I walk through often. Sometimes in an odd corner I find kinfolk I hadn’t known were buried there. A Davidson murdered and left in a cave, never solved. A Mills dead in a horrible wreck that we don’t believe was an accident—no proof, but we know the name. Dead babies, flu victims, all that sorrow. I think about the carts pulled by hand across Appalachia, kids and hogs trailing, the years of scratching a subsistence living from ruined dirt. The dirt was always thin but became thinner with the arrival of progress. When the timber barons came to the Ozarks they cut the great forests down to stump and mud, and the mud thinned more with every rainfall. They took all the timber. They left us the stumps. This is the Ozarks I needed to know, and know to the bloody root, in order to write as I do.

Five of Daniel Woodrell’s eight novels were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. A recipient of the PEN West Award, Woodrell lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line with his wife, Katie Estill.

Mulholland Books will publish THE BAYOU TRILOGY: Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing and The Ones You Do in April 2011.