BOOK REVIEW: A History of the Ozarks, Vol 2

Brooks Blevins, notable local historian and author, released the second volume in his three-part series A History of the Ozarks and I have been eager to pick up this book ever since.

Volume 2 is subtitled “The Conflicted Ozarks” and deals with the time period surrounding the Civil War. 

Blevins’s argument, as I interpret it, is this: in the period before, during, and after the Civil War, the Ozarks existed as a region that simply could not be defined due to the complexity of the people tucked into the nooks and crannies of the hill region. It was a place unlike the rest of Arkansas, unlike the rest of the South, and unlike the rest of the country. It was marked deeply by the myriad of immigrants and American Indians who had made the place home. It was a place that due to both geography and intentionality, existed separately from other defined cultures of the time. The only consistent narrative is that there is no consistent narrative. The only stereotype is the complete absence of a true stereotype.

People were all over the place, as far as backgrounds, beliefs, ways of life, and in the context of the Civil War, allegiances.

Blevins emphasized this reality with the introduction of a strange character named Elias Boudinot, who was the son of a Cherokee leader and a white woman. He was born in the Ozarks, raised with the Cherokee, educated in the Northeast, and published a “pro-slavery rag that not only lambasted abolitionists but championed education and industrialization.” The only thing typical about Boudinot and his mish-mash of allegiances was that, in the Ozarks during this time, there was little in the way of “typical”.

"...the Ozark region was conflicted in the age of war and reconstruction. Occupying a liminal regional space, a cultural borderland, the Ozarks was part Southern, part Western, part Midwestern. Not completely at home in either the cultural South or the cultural North, the region fittingly and tragically found itself a literal borderland in 1861, straddling the line that demarcated the Confederacy from the Union but never neatly delineated secessionists from Unionists, thousands of each populating both sides of the old thirty-six-degree thirty-minute line as well as the hills of the Indian Territory. It was a blueprint for true civil warfare..."

I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m hoping the Lunenberg Skirmish is included. I’ll write more about this another time; it perfectly exemplifies the brother-against-brother and neighbor-against-neighbor nature of the Civil War, and how that nature was most pronounced in a border area like the Ozarks. 

They say one of the markers of a great historical storytelling is how understandable and attractive it is to the average reader. Is this book accessible? Well I admit to consulting a dictionary within the first ten pages (to find out what the meaning of the words “interregnum” and “ignominious”, if you’re wondering). But to be fair, if you’re picking up a book about the hardships of a society in the midst of Civil War atrocities, you probably aren’t expecting a breezy beachside light read.

That aside, the book still asks the reader to have a foundational knowledge of Arkansas history and geography — an assumption that might have been a given not very long ago. But at an age where many teachers don’t teach history at all, much less state history, that kind of foundational knowledge is becoming rare.

It is still very much read-able and enjoyable even if you’re iffy about the strength of your local history chops, so don’t let that stop you. This book will take you miles towards developing those chops, to be sure. The depth of research shows, and the author’s passion and experience with the subject matter is obvious.

Overall, Brooks Blevins, as always, does the Ozarks proud as a representative native, and as one of the region’s current scholars. We are lucky to have both professional historians like him, and also the handful of amateur sleuths out there who have worked hard to preserve, understand, and tell others the real story of the Ozarks, one that exists beyond the hillbilly stereotypes imposed on the region.  

Brooks Blevins is a Lyon College alumnae, former Lyon College professor, and the Noel Boyd Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University. He is the author or editor of nine books, including A History of the Ozarks, Volume 1; Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South; and Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies, and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State.

A History of the Ozarks, Volume 2, is currently available for purchase at the Old Independence Regional Museum.

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