by Ruth Ann Musick
Hell’s Holler: A Novel Based on the Folklore of Missouri Chariton Hill Country , an unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in the department of English at by Ruth Ann Musick, 1943, State University of Iowa. 417 ms. pages (typed, double-spaced).
The book has been checked out with due-dates of 24 November 1944; 27 Feb., 28 March, 1945; 18 Feb., 31 May, 1946; Jan 29 (year?); Feb. 19, 1951, June 11 1979 and Sept. 2, 2003. The folklore consists of some weather and wildlife lore, sundry superstitions and an anecdote or two, as well as a few snatches of song, deployed in the “local color” technique then in vogue.
Summary: The novel is set in the present of its writing – after prohibition, but without any notice of WWII or of technology beyond the Model T (which is nonetheless regarded as less than up-to-date). George Moore, age 38, and his longsuffering wife Mary (26), married ten years, live on a twenty-five acre parcel of Chariton River land (Adair County, MO) with their children: the dutiful and cruelly overworked Lawrence, age eight, along with an indeterminate number of younger siblings (Mark, Hubert, Vida and perhaps some others). The farm is more than necessarily decrepit, since George is unable to work, due to a shiftlessness that is never finally determined to be either mental disease or a character flaw.
Nearby live George’s parents, Sarah and Lige, and somewhat further away (in Sullivan County), Mary’s father, the loud, frequently repentant and relapsed alcoholic Jonathan “Happy John” Praytor, with his wife, recently crippled by a stroke. Also in the neighborhood is the responsible — and single — Ben Bragg, a former suitor of Mary’s.
Keatsville refers to Kirksville, and the sinister “rub-doctors” are the osteopaths of the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine. La Plata becomes La Fever. The “rub doctors” are engaged in buying up the hill country land, with an eye to building a reservoir (reflecting real historical events).
The unhappinesses of Dr. Musick’s own life appear in some form: the brutality of the slaughtering of Lawrence’s pet pig Sampson clearly recalls the horror which turned her to vegetarianism, and there is the institutionalization of her alcoholic husband, echoed in George’s stay at the asylum in St. Joseph.
Mary stoically endures George’s almost incredible selfishness and laziness. There are hints of a Freudian diagnosis for George’s trouble (Mary blames George’s
condition on his overdependence on a too-helpful mother, and the word “hysteria” is tossed-out), but the outward signs look like a closely-observed case of psychotic depression, certainly with serious character disorders as well. The main plot concerns George’s one genuinely good deed, having secretly sold his body (after death of course) to the medical school in order to pay for Mary’s life-saving operation, and his subsequent worries about his resurrection. Sub-plots include the machinations of the rub-doctors to acquire the hill-folks’ land, the possibility of rekindled romance between Mary and Ben Bragg, and the feud between George’s parents and neighboring brothers, the Tittles. The novel reaches its climax in an outbreak of cholera.
The novel bounces uncertainly back and forth between pity and contempt for its protagonist – whether he is the victim of forces beyond his control and a condition he didn’t bring on himself, or whether he is indeed to blame for the suffering his indolence and self-centeredness bring on his family. As a novel, it is an apprentice-piece, gathering confidence and subtlety as it goes.