Dr. Joyce Kinkead on The Shepherd
of The Hills
Copyright Joyce Kinkead, 1979. Used by Permission.
Continued from previous
In The Shepherd of the Hills, the major female character, Sammy
Lane, receives training in the art of manners so that she can become a
true lady "like them Ollie [her fiancé] tells about in his letters,
The Shepherd, who trains her, teaches that a real lady has three
qualities: a pure heart,
mind, and body (Shepherd, pp. 123-24). He introduces her to good books, asks her to pattern herself
after model ladies, and stresses the importance of physical
attractiveness. Sammy is a
child of nature, pure and unspoiled, just as is her counterpart, Young
Matt. She advances quickly
under the Shepherd's spiritual and intellectual guidance, becoming a
well-groomed, intellectual young lady who loses every trace of her former
dialect. In fact, her past is
grounded in southern aristocracy, but she is transplanted from the South
to the Ozarks by her father, who is the black sheep of the family.
Sammy possesses the basis for becoming a lady, as Wright explains:
With this, she had inherited from many generations of gentlefolk a
mind and spirit susceptible of the highest culture.
Unspoiled by the hothouse, forcing process, that so often leaves
the intellectual powers jaded and weak, before they have fully developed,
and free from the atmosphere of falsehood and surface culture, in which so
many souls struggle for their very existence, the girl took what her
teacher had to offer and made it her own.
With a mental appetite uninjured by tidbits and dainties, she
digested the strong food, and asked eagerly for more.
(Shepherd, p. 169)
Although Sammy is transformed into a real lady, Wright's insistence
upon her aristocratic heritage is an unnecessary convention. Such artificiality indicates a possible class prejudice
whereas Wright normally argues merely for good country people.
Wright also subtly suggests that humans should be bred for
excellence. Jim Lane says of
his daughter that he will not allow her good blood to be mixed with
"the low down common yeller kind" (Shepherd, p. 105) and
suggests that her fiancé comes from good stock. Although her fiancé does have good breeding, he lacks
character and moral strength. Sammy
finds these attributes in Young Matt, and after he, too, is educated by
the Shepherd and Sammy, the young people marry.
They are "what God meant men and women to be" (Shepherd,
p. 300). The strongest
argument for selective breeding comes from Preachin' Bill, who says,
"if folks cared half as much 'bout breeding folks as they do 'bout
raising hogs an' horses" there would be more people of virtuous
character (Shepherd, p. 27).
However, Sammy and Young Matt must experience a number of
incidents, many violent, before they can realize their love for each other
and marry. Based on an Ozark
legend, the novel reveals the nature of the people and their customs prior
to any industrial development. The
story includes actual people whom Wright became acquainted with during his
visits to southwestern Missouri.
The daughter of Old Matt, Maggie, is betrayed by Howard, an artist
from Chicago. Howard's father
has convinced his son that he cannot merge his proud heritage with such a
back-woods girl. When the
girl discovers that her lover is not returning, she, then pregnant, loses
her mind. She dies in
childbirth when her "woods colt" (illegitimate child), Little
Pete, is born. Howard returns
to the mountains only to find her grave.
He, too, becomes more or less insane and retreats to a cave where
he lives unknown to the community. Although
his nocturnal presence is noticed at times, it is attributed to a
"haunt," and residents shy away from the cave.
Howard tries to help the Matthews family to which he has brought so
About fifteen years after the return of the artist to the
mountains, his father, a famous minister from Chicago, also comes up
"the trail that is, nobody knows, how old" (Shepherd, p.
18). At the Matthews home he
finds a hearty welcome, but soon discovers that some mystery surrounds the
mountain family. Aunt Molly
finally tells the stranger of the tragedy which the artist earlier had
brought to the family and of Old Matt's bitter hatred for the artist and
his father. Since the time of
Maggie's death, strange sounds can be heard in Mutton Hollow; thus, Old
Matt cannot find anyone to herd his sheep there.
Realizing that it is son Howard who has caused the grief, the
minister decides to stay in the hills.
He becomes the Shepherd of the sheep and spiritual adviser to the
community in order to atone for his son's wrongs and his own poor
Sammy Lane is betrothed to Ollie Stewart.
However, when Ollie returns to the country to visit Sammy, he has
become a dandified fop, and though he offers her the life of a rich lady,
she rejects both him and the city. She
chooses instead the country and Old Matt's son.
The plot proceeds with various problems including a drought, a bank
robbery, and physical conflicts. The
Bald Knobbers is a gang formed as a vigilante force for the protection of
the mountain people, but it degenerates into an outlaw band that
terrorizes people and robs banks. The
final conflict between the outlaws and the government men is the climax of
the novel. While meeting at
the home of Jim Lane, the group is surprised by the revenue agents just as
Jim Lane informs the rest of the men that he is reforming for the sake of
his daughter, Sammy, and leaving the organization.
Jim Lane is killed by Wash Gibbs, the group's leader, and the
majority of the gang perish in the shoot-out.
Wash Gibbs, mortally wounded, is left to die in the woods where his
body is consumed by buzzards. In
the process of the gunfight, Mad Howard, who tries to help, is shot by an
agent who thinks he is one of the gang.
The Shepherd, with Pete's aid, finds Howard near death in the cave. Before Howard dies, the Matthews family and the Shepherd's
family are reconciled. Soon
after, Little Pete also dies, and Young Matt and Sammy marry.
The Shepherd dies as civilization rapidly approaches via the
The success of Wright's second novel is based on
"sentimentality, sermons, love pattern, mystery, a sense of the
outdoors, and a love of country."
Wright's sentimentality is best seen through his romantic
descriptions of his characters who are more stereotypic than realistic
Miss Sammy Lane was one of those rare young women whose appearance
is not to be described. One
can, of course, put it down that she was tall; beautifully tall, with the
trimness of a young pine, deep bosomed with limbs full-rounded, fairly
tingling with the life and strength of perfect womanhood; and it may be
said that her face was a face to go with one through the years, and to
live still in one's dreams when the sap of life is gone, and, withered and
old, one sits shaking before the fire; a generous loving mouth,
red-lipped, full-arched, with the corners tucked in and perfect teeth
between. (Shepherd, p. 29)
Wright does not make his female characters intellectual inferiors
to men. Instead, they are
often superior in education. After
Sammy's lessons with the Shepherd, she shares her knowledge with young
Matt so that they can be intellectual equals.
Similarly, Young Matt is also an idealized character, a large man
who can lift from the ground the back wheels of a steam threshing machine
or hold a man in each hand at arm's length above his head (Shepherd,
p. 90). wash Gibbs, the novel's villain, is as strong as Young Matt,
but lacks the moral character which enables Matt to overcome Wash, the man
with the "look of a sheep-killin' dog" (Shepherd, p. 79).
While Wright's character descriptions may be overdone, his
landscape descriptions are excellent as he comprehensively details the
picturesque Ozarks. One
review notes that the novel
has the merit of carrying the reader a little out of the beaten
track in the manner of location and character, and it is told with an ease
and strength. . . .
There are many bits of excellent description in the course of the
story, and an atmosphere as fresh and sweet and free from modern grime as
one would breathe on the Ozarks trails themselves.
reviewer marks the novel as "under-sophisticated" and aiming
"at homely simplicity and native nobility of character."
Wright is at his best when describing the local geography which
includes such colorful names as Mutton Hollow and Dewey Bald.
Viewing the Ozarks as an Eden, Preachin' Bill says:
When God looked upon th' work of his hands an' called hit good, he
war sure a lookin' at this here Ozark country.
Rough? Law yes!
Hit war made that a way on purpose.
Ain't nothin' to a flat country nohow.
A man jest naturally wear hisself plumb out a walkin' on a level 'thout
ary down hill t' spell him. An'
then look how much more there is of hit!
Take forty acres o' flat now an' hit's jest a forty, but you
take forty acres o' this here Ozark country an' God 'lmighty only knows
how much 'twould be if hit war rolled out flat.
"Taint no wonder 't all, God rested when he made these here
hills; he jest naturally had t' quit, fer he done his bestenest an'
war plumb gin out. (Shepherd, pp. 15-16.
Wright uses contrast to describe accurately the variations found in
the Ozarks. "The weather
he illustrates by juxtaposing the extremes of rain and drought; scenes, by
day and night; seasons, by autumn-winter and spring-summer."
Serving as symbols, the weather conditions and the time of day
often indicate the mood of the book as the drought brings hardship, trial,
and violence. While the
nights are romantic, they are also dangerous because of the savagery of
the Bald Knobbers and because of a panther that stalks people.
The people who inhabit this land of contrasts are Anglo-Saxons who
continue many of the characteristics of their former culture in
Elizabethan England. Displaced
to the Ozarks and isolated in the backwoods, the people still laud English
royalty in their songs, ballads, and play parties.
The Ozarks are "the 'seed-bed' of Anglo-Saxonism in the United
States and the last surviving Elizabethan culture in the western
world," for the Ozarks resident is a "colorful personality
'lost' in isolation."
This unique culture persisted until the early twentieth century
when rail transportation into the Ozarks became feasible, and the outer
and inner worlds mixed as cultures integrated.
The introduction of the railroad to the previously peaceful
environment of the mountains provides a strain of pessimism in the novel.
Wright echoes the fears of the industrial revolution in America as
Leo Marx describes them in The Machine in the Garden (1964).
The Shepherd notes, "Before many years a railroad will find
its way yonder. Then many
will come, and the beautiful hills that have been my strength and peace
will become the haunt of careless idlers and a place of revelry.
I am glad that I shall not be here" (Shepherd, p. 350). At his death, cannon fire can be heard in the distance as the
hills are blasted to provide for the railroad.
In an otherwise optimistic romance, the machine becomes a serpent
of evil, for with the arrival of the machines comes the city, and Wright
has already shown that the country is good and the city is bad.
The corruption of the city also affects its churches. The Shepherd escapes from Chicago where his church has become
meaningless. Tired of church
corruption, the Shepherd retreats to nature and the Ozarks to find true
religion in a transcendental view. Realizing
that nature is the key to spirit, the famous urban clergyman is at peace
in the Ozarks while tending his flocks, both animal and human.
We who live in the cities see but a little farther than across the
street. We spend our days
looking at the work of our own and our neighbors' hands.
Small wonder our lives have so little of God in them, when we come
in touch with so little that God has made. (Shepherd, p. 36)
by transcendentalism, Wright dwells on the spiritual effect of the
sunrise, sunset, moonlit nights, and the hills.
Among these settings Wright develops a love story, which
contributes "to the evolution of the mature romance,"
as the novel explores the psychological conflicts of the lovers.
Sammy continually questions love and its practical and aesthetic
aspects. Sammy and Young Matt
do not simply rush into each other's arms.
Rather, they deliberately proceed in a slow-paced, questioning
relationship until they are sure of each other.
In contrast, Sammy's first relationship with Ollie is impulsive,
and thus they are mismatched. With maturity, the correct lovers marry, and they lead a
happy life as a result of their deliberation.
Besides the love pattern, Wright also introduces several mysteries,
some never completely answered to the reader's satisfaction. Jim Lane's southern aristocratic heritage is alluded to, but
the details of his fall from grace with his family are not mentioned.
The activities of the Bald Knobbers are implied but are not made
specific until the conclusion. The
Shepherd's true identity is masked as is the ghost's who haunts the hills
and protects its inhabitants. These
mysteries build suspense in the novel until the gunfight when some events
Wright would be pleased to know that The Shepherd of the Hills
is enjoying a tremendous revival in the Ozarks as an outdoor pageant.
The advertising skill of the production rivals Wright's earlier
effort as the play attracts thousands of tourists each summer to watch the
drama of "a man who took the trail to the lower ground and of a
woman, and how she found her way to the higher sunlit fields" (Shepherd,
Bruce Trimble restored the original Matthews farm when he moved to
the Ozarks in 1947. After Trimble's death, his son, Mark, continued the
restoration and today produces the play.
The son built the outdoor theatre where visitors can see a
restoration of the early twentieth century in a setting deep in the
backwoods of the Ozarks. Realistically
produced, the play includes a mill with working steam engine, the
Shepherd's cabin, the forest, horses and wagons, sheep, and a cast of
ninety actors. The pageant,
produced since 1960, is one of many successful operation in the
tourist-packed Ozarks. The
Ozarks of today are the result of the machine's entrance into Wright's
Eden. His prophecy in The
Shepherd of the Hills concerning the transition of the area following
the introduction of the railroad came true.
Joyce Kinkead, 1979. Used by Permission.