I didn’t know much about Missouri when I first started reading the state — is it Southern or Midwestern? I would have said Southern, especially when I realized Missouri is Mark Twain’s home state. And then I read Stoner, a book that evokes the isolation and wide open spaces of an Edward Hopper painting, and one of the best books I’ve read on my US reading adventure. After reading Stoner, I checked the US map again to see if Missouri is in the Midwest, and sure enough, it is: it’s the next state east of the geographical center of the country. Missouri is a rich mix, and is home to some fine writing: it is the birthplace of Maya Angelou, and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, set in the Ozarks of Missouri, is another a top choice from my reading journey.
Author: John Williams, taught and earned Ph.D. at U. of Missouri
Setting: early 1900s University of Missouri (Columbia, MO)
Categories: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Stoner is not about marijuana. It is the story of William Stoner, born to a poverty-stricken farming family in the early 1900s. Their days were spent laboring, their evenings spent in stoic silence in their unpainted wood plank house with dust seeping up through the floor.
Often during the hour or so between supper and bed, the only sound that could be heard was the weary movement of a body in a straight chair and the soft creak of a timber giving a little beneath the age of the house.
Stoner’s parents save pennies throughout his childhood to send him to the new agronomy college at the University of Missouri so he can learn better farming practices, bring that knowledge back, and help the farm survive and thrive to propel their family to a better place.
As the dutiful son he is, Stoner goes to college. But his agronomy courses don’t bring him to life: literature does.
This novel is of Stoner’s slow awakening, of a journey from innocence, poverty, apathy, and indifference to wisdom, intellectual riches, passion, and a true understanding of love. Throughout the book there is a vague sense that outside of his passion for literature, which also takes him a while to identify, Stoner doesn’t know himself. This novel is the development of a whole human, the path from uninformed notions and an acceptance of fate to truly understanding love, life, and ultimately oneself.
The blurb on the back cover likens William Stoner to an Edward Hopper painting, and that is a perfect description of the mood this book creates. I love Edward Hopper – the sober solitude he creates in many of his paintings — and I loved Stoner in the same way.
Novel: Winter’s Bone
Author: Daniel Woodrell, born Springfield, Missouri, 1953
Setting: 2000’s Ozark Mountains, Missouri
Categories: Contemporary fiction, Grit-Lit
Holy buckets. The first time I read Winter’s Bone, I don’t remember thinking much of it but that it was raw and harsh. This time, though, the sentences crackled. I don’t think Woodrell uses the word “sparkle” a single time*, though the book is filled with winter. His Ozark snowscape is more ominous than the glittering one of a softer book; his Ozark winter snaps and slaps, creaks and cracks.
The morning was clear but bone-cracking cold.
Set in the modern-day Ozark mountains of Missouri, just north of the Arkansas border, Winter’s Bone is the story of Ree Dolly, teenage daughter of a meth cook who has gone missing. Ree cares for her two brothers and her addled, nonfunctional mother, and when she finds out her father put their house up for bond and likely wouldn’t be showing for his court date, she sets out across the icy landscape to find kin — other meth cooks in and out of prison, some of the hardest folks I’ve come across in literature — to try to find her father.
Thump Milton loomed over Ree, a fabled man, his face a monument of Ozark stone, with juts and angles and cold shaded parts the sun never touched.
But nobody, not even her kin, is talking. Winter’s Bone is a dark and utterly believable story of the strange family dynamics, the violence and the loyalties, of Ozark mountain people whose “ways was set firm long before hotshot baby Jesus ever even burped milk’n shit yellow.”
Woodrell’s use of language and landscape to strengthen the harsh reality of the book was brilliantly done.
* I searched for the word “sparkle” in the text on my Nook and found the word appears once, in blood in a dream. The word “glitter” does not appear at all.
Book: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Author: Maya Angelou, born 1928 in St. Louis, MO
Setting: 1930s Arkansas and Missouri; 1940s California
Maya Angelou, born in Missouri in 1928, was raised mainly by her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. This book tells the story of Angelou’s childhood, starting in Stamps, then moving briefly to her mother’s home in Missouri when she was 8. In Missouri, at age 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. As you would expect, that story is heartbreaking, and the retribution her uncles rained down on the rapist paints a vivid picture of St. Louis in the mid-1930s.
Angelou was mute for some time after that. Eventually, her Missouri family tired of her “sullenness” and her unwillingness to speak, and she and her brother moved back to their grandmother in south Arkansas. Angelou was raised as a Southern Black, and she and her brother endured the hardship that life entails before her grandmother decided enough is enough. Her grandmother sent them to California to live with their mother when where they could have a better life, away from the prejudices and lynching ropes of the 1930s and 1940s South.
This book is less about the specific setting of Missouri or Arkansas, or even California, and is more about the experience of a young black girl and woman in America — a smart girl, an artistic girl, a girl who beat the odds and broke free, despite everything working against her to keep her down.
For Further Reading in Missouri
Books I’ve read:
– Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
– The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
– The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
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.