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Dr. Joyce Kinkead on The Shepherd of The Hills
Copyright Joyce Kinkead, 1979.  Used by Permission.  

Continued from previous page

          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, you know."[1]  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.[2]  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 much sorrow.

            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 judgement.

            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 railroad.

            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."[3]  Wright's sentimentality is best seen through his romantic descriptions of his characters who are more stereotypic than realistic human beings:

            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.[4] 

Another reviewer marks the novel as "under-sophisticated" and aiming "at homely simplicity and native nobility of character."[5]  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."[6]  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."[7]  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.  He remarks:

            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) 

Dominated 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,"[8] 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 are explained.

            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, p. 15).

            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.

Back to The Shepherd of The Hills

    [1]Harold Bell Wright, The Shepherd of the Hills (Chicago:  Book Supply, 1907), p. 122.  Subsequent references to this book will be incorporated into the body of the text as Shepherd and pagination.

    [2]For further details on the characters and their true counterparts, see Carla Roberts and Diana Foremen, "From Hills to Hotels," Bittersweet, 4 No. 4 (1977), 46-61, and J. K. Ross, "Old Matt's View of It," White River Valley Historical Quarterly, 5, No. 7 (1975), 9-18.

    [3]Edwards Ifkovic, "Harold Bell Wright and the Minister of Man:  The Domestic Romancer at the End of the Genteel Age," Markham Review, 4, No. 2 (1974), 21-22.

    [4]Rev. of The Shepherd of the Hills, by Harold Bell Wright, New York Times Book Review, 26 Oct. 1907 p. 12.

    [5]"Comment on Current Books," rev. of The Shepherd of the Hills, by Harold Bell Wright, Outlook, 5 Oct. 1907, p. 269.

    [6]Edwin W. Gaston, Jr., The Early Novel of the Southwest (Albuquerque:  Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1961), p. 126.

    [7]Otto Ernest Rayburn, Ozark Country (New York:  Duell, Sloan, and Pearce) p. 36.

    [8]Gaston, p. 192.

        Copyright Joyce Kinkead, 1979.  Used by Permission.  


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