In direct opposition to the literary criticisms about The Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright (published 1907), I found this tale captivating. Maybe that was partly because of my own cultural connection to it via family history in the same area, but for whatever reason, I could hardly put the book down until the end. I was surprised, no, shocked, at how much I enjoyed the story.
For some reason, my memory of the outdoor drama based upon the novel (one I attended as a child), and the vaguely recollected comments of family members, focused upon the Christian aspects of the story. To my delight, however, the novel didn’t feel like a “Christian story” or even like a morality tale per se. On the contrary, the story was thoroughly entertaining, plus, the mystery and beauty of Mother Nature were expounded upon to depict the immanence of the Sacred.
Essentially, the story revolves around a stranger from the city who arrives in the backwoods of the Missouri Ozarks about 1880/1890. He is welcomed by the hill folk and eventually integrates with them; our narrator refers to him as the shepherd.
I was enchanted by the unique character of Pete, an ethereal, fey boy who hears and talks with nature. In an early conversation with the shepherd, we are told:
“Again that strange smile illuminated [Pete’s] face [and he told the shepherd]… ‘And the tree things like him, too, brother; and the flowers, the little flower things that know everything; they’re all a singing’ to Pete ‘cause he’s come … And the grey mist things come out and danced along the mountain, ‘cause they was so glad you come. … Do you like Pete’s people, Mister?’ He waved his hands to include the forest, the mountains and the sky; and there was a note of anxiety in the sweet voice as he asked again: ‘Do you like Pete’s friends?’” (Pages 38-39)
While Wright’s depictions of the characters are bigger-than-life, they didn’t feel like cheap stereotypes, rather, I was reminded of archetypes. The story seemed to express a resonance with a myth or a rustic fairy tale.
For example, about the major female character, Wright wrote:
“Sammy Lane knew nothing of the laws and customs of the, so-called, best society. Her splendid young womanhood was not the product of those social traditions and rules that kill the instinct of her kind before it is fairly born. She was as free and as physically perfect as any of the free creatures that lived in the hills. And, keenly alive to the life that throbbed and surged about her, her woman’s heart and soul responded to the spirit of the season. The droning of the bees in the blossoms that grew in a cranny of the rock; the tinkle, tinkle of the sheep bells, as the flock moved slowly in their feeding; and the soft breathing of Mother Earth was in her ears; while the gentle breeze that stirred her hair came heavy with the smell of growing things.” (Page 48)
Sammy, 19 years old and promised to a local lad who had left Mutton Hollow for an opportunity in the big city, was worried that he might find her wanting upon his return. With that in mind, she asked the shepherd to help her become a “lady” like her fiancé would be meeting in the city. The shepherd, seeing the magnificent wild and free qualities in Sammy, hesitated, but decided to do his best to encourage her to merge the finest of who she already was with qualities that would allow her to fit in with so-called civilized city-people. He said “a real lady, Sammy is a lady in three ways: First in her heart.” Then, he says the second is to have a “lady mind” or, in other words, that “she must know how to think and talk about the things that really matter.” And thirdly, he says she should “keep her body as strong and as beautiful as she can, for this is one way that she expresses her heart and mind” but not because of what others might think, rather, “just for herself.” The shepherd greatly admires Sammy, already, as an example of splendid womanhood; he doesn’t want her to change but rather to grow more empowered.
I will admit that there were times throughout the book where I became weary of Wright’s emphasis upon the perfection of both Sammy’s womanhood and Young Matt’s manhood. However, when viewed from an archetypal perspective, this is simply part of mythology, and through this lens (consider the men and women in Greek myths, for instance, or Snow White and Prince Charming, or even Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden), their physical perfection makes sense.
When, toward the end of the book, the author included a reference to one of my least favorite passages in the Bible, the one about man having dominion over the earth, it jarred with the rest of the story’s message of equitable harmony with the earth. For instance, during one scene, the shepherd (once known as a pastor, a Doctor of Divinity, with the “biggest church, greatest crowds in the city” of Chicago):
“Could not grasp the truth of the situation, but the beauty of the hour moved him deeply … ‘See how soft the moonlight falls on that patch of grass this side of the old tree yonder, and how black the shadow is under that bush, like the mouth of a cave, a witch’s cave. I am sure there are ghosts and goblins in there, with fairies and gnomes, and perhaps a dragon or two. And see, lad, how the great hills rise into the sky. How grand, how beautiful the world is!’” (Page 89)
And again, this relationship with the earth when the shepherd welcomed into his home an old friend, who remarked upon the change in him. The shepherd said:
“‘I suppose I have changed some, David. The hills have done it. Look at them!’ He pointed to the encircling mountains. ‘See how calm and strong they are; how they lift their heads above the gloom. They are my friends and companions, David. And they have given me of their calmness and strength a little.’” (Page 159)
There are countless passages in the book where the author waxes poetic about the splendor of the Ozark mountains and the magic contained in a relationship with them. The shepherd wrote to his friend about the winsome boy Pete that:
“‘Here and there among men, there are those who pause in the hurried rush to listen to the call of a life that is more real. How often have we seen them, David, jostled and ridiculed by their fellows, pushed aside and forgotten, as incompetent or unworthy. He who sees and hears too much is cursed for a dreamer, a fanatic, or a fool … Pete knew a world unseen by us, and we, therefore, fancied ourselves wiser than he. The wind in the pines, the rustle of the leaves, the murmur of the brook, the growl of the thunder, and the voices of the night were all understood and answered by him. The flowers, the trees, the rocks, the hills, the clouds were to him, not lifeless things, but living friends, who laughed and wept with him as he was gay or sorrowful.’” (Pages 177-178)
When I have time, I hope to do a close reading of the text and get further into its mythological themes. For now, I can say that I wholeheartedly recommend the book!
As a side note, this book was a catalyst for making the Missouri Ozarks a tourist destination in the 20th century. I will write more about that later. Below is a nice map outlining the Ozark Plateau; the tale Shepherd of the Hills takes place near Branson (kind of middle left inside the circle).