Donald Harington was much on my mind last Saturday, November 7, as I attended a wedding in the vicinity of Murray, Arkansas, a place well off the paved roads, southwest of Jasper, the county seat of Newton County. On this spectacular day–an outdoor wedding in November!–I watched Julie Brown and Dan Osterkamp start their married life in the midst of family and friends, against a stunning limestone bluff, to the accompaniment of a gurgling stream.
On this lovely day, Donald Harington died of pneumonia, ending of a long battle with cancer, in Fayetteville, where he had lived and worked for many years as a professor of art history at the University of Arkansas. The New York Times obituary of Donald Harington is as thoughtful as any I’ve read. If you know of others, please add them below.
Harington is well-known in the Ozarks for his novels that are set in Newton County, Arkansas, around the community he called Staymore. The quality of Harington’s fiction seems erratic to me, except that it is usually engaging and often hilarious. He created characters who settled Staymore, or were born there, leaving and returning, over the last few hundred years. He gives them ideas appropriate for their times, houses them in a variety of structures, and links them to one another in many ways, genetic, financial, sexual, and political.
One branch of my ancestry, led by Ezekiel and Talitha Shaddox, homesteaded in Newton County in the 1850s, just below Pruitt, where Mill Creek spills into the Buffalo River. Harington’s ability to evoke what Newton County was like in times past adds color and detail to my own mental pictures of the lives and surroundings of my forebears.
The fiction of the Ozarks is rich but not deep.
Harold Bell Wright’s novels, such as The Shepherd of the Hills (1907), are the prototypes of romance novels, immensely popular but without great characterization. Thames Williamson’s short novel The Woods Colt (1933) tells a gripping story of a family involved with an illegal distillery and rough characters in northern Arkansas and is enhanced by Williamson’s great ear for dialect and dialog. The finely-crafted novels of Douglas Jones describe the Civil War in the Ozarks.
Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows (1961), set in the Oklahoma Ozarks near Tahlequah, is a powerful story, up there with and in the genre of Shane and Old Yeller: I’ve been told that the 1973 movie version was shown at a local coonhunters’ association meeting, after which all the coonhunters walked out to their trucks without speaking or exchanging glances, keeping their tears to themselves.
More recently, Daniel Woodrell’s novels depict rural poverty and social disintegration in the modern Ozarks. I have not read Gary Blackwood’s well-regarded novels, such as Moonshine (1999).
Dee Brown, whose historical fiction and non-fiction occasionally touched the Ozarks, consistently wrote at a high level, including in Way to Bright Star (1998), which describes a couple of young men who were hired to take a couple of camels through northwestern Arkansas and southern Missouri during the Civil War. Brown’s 1993 memoir When the Century Was Young: A Writer’s Notebook includes the comedic tale of Brown and a friend being thrown in the Newton County jail for a crime they didn’t commit. Brown is most famous for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), which is a collection of essays about the U. S. government’s execution of Native Americans, and his best-selling novel Creek Mary’s Blood (1980), which is the fictionalized story of several Cherokee families (including several of my maternal ancestors and collateral kin) from the sixteenth through the 20th centuries. Some of the scenes in Creek Mary’s Blood take place in the Ozarks.
Harington’s contribution to Ozarks literature is substantial.
If you haven’t read Donald Harington’s fiction, you might want to start with The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (1987), and work through the twelve other novels. I’m also a fan of Let Us Build a City, a non-fictional exploration of eleven places in the Ozarks with “city” in their names, with special attention to the aspirations of the promoters of these towns that never grew. This essay by Steve Reed describes Harington’s distinct skills as a storyteller and gives an overview of his fiction.