Books give us images that last a lifetime. I recently visited the setting of one of my favorite childhood novels, The Shepherd of the Hills. It’s an unlikely romantic tale set in the Ozarks in the early 1900s.
The book has drawn tourists to the area from 1907 until today. It has attracted moviemakers, too. The 1941 version of the film, which I saw on television decades later, starred John Wayne.
To a feedsack kid living on a farm in northeast Missouri, the state’s once isolated southwest corner seemed an exotic and exciting place. Years later I spent a few days in the area enjoying its beautiful springs, clear streams, and rugged hills (really ancient mountains). I also stayed overnight in Branson to see an outdoor performance of The Shepherd of the Hills staged at a homestead described in Harold Bell Wright’s novel.
Recently I went back to Branson, a town of 6,000 that has become the live performance capital of the world. I didn’t go to attend the 100 or so different shows that bring in millions of visitors each year. I went for a five-day workshop on Ozark culture—to learn more about the people and places I read about so many years ago. The story drew some of the others who came from 13 states.
I learned, among many things, that the hill people lived a harder and more isolated life than we did in agriculturally rich northeast Missouri, but many came from the same roots. They have a bit more of the border-state drawl than the people with whom I grew up, but the dialect of Wright’s memorable characters appears to have yielded to the influence of national radio and television.
Branson is possum ugly, with countless motels, restaurants, souvenir places, and theaters clinging to denuded and damaged hills along the car-clogged Strip. A few miles away, the land remains largely unchanged, and hard-working people still gather on Saturday nights to play the old songs for each other. It’s pretty close to fiddler heaven.
I took The Shepherd of the Hills and read it in the evenings after the workshops. I liked the plot a lot better when I was a kid, but the portrait of the community still carried me through.