Here’s what I almost said. Preparing to give Morkan’s Quarry its first launch in Mississippi at my hometown bookstore, Lemuria in Jackson, I thought tons about Ozarks history needed explaining. So I was going to light in with all this stuff that follows.
“If you will indulge me, let me tell you a little about the Civil War in Missouri, for events and circumstances were very different there than here. From 1854 onward some Missourians were participants and largely the instigators of violence in Bleeding Kansas. So a motivated minority of us had long been on a destructive course in a new state fractured over slavery. When in early 1861 Missourians were polled on the question of holding a secession convention, however, 73% voted against such a thing. Aside from those living in St. Louis, Springfield, and a few other real towns, Missourians on the whole were farmers, holding on average 250 acres raising corn and swine. In the Ozarks, where this novel is set, slaveholding was extremely rare. Historian Michael Fellman in his great book Inside War describes my hill brethren, the hillbillies, as “bitterly negrophobic and at the same time deeply distrustful of the pretensions of Southern planters and especially resentful of their counterparts in power in Missouri.” So the Missouri Ozarks found itself a threatened place caught in between the loud belligerencies of abolition coming from St. Louis and of pro-slavery from the empowered and enriched planters of our state’s Little Dixie, called The Boone’s Lick. Most in the Ozarks were conditional unionists; they did not vote for Lincoln, nor for Douglas, but for candidates that vowed compromise and maintenance of the current status quo, which, though bloody, was bloody somewhere else. That threatened middle ground is where Michael Morkan comes from. He’s a business man, a quarry owner, wise enough to know that war is not commerce—it is destruction, and evil, and upheaval. And yet, Southwest Missouri, and especially Springfield are about to become the state’s primary battlefield. By the end of the first year of the Civil War, my hometown was occupied by five different armies, changed hands four times, saw half of its homes and buildings destroyed or made unusable, lost half its 1860 population of 2,000, and by the end of the conflict survived three battles, two within the city limits, and a constant garrisoned occupation. That anyone remained is a miracle, but staying is exactly what Michael Morkan asks his son to do.”
Have mercy! No one comes to a reading of a novel for all that. Fiction is about the characters! That’s why I wrote the novel in the first place. Breakthrough (or, Duh)! So instead we’ll have…
“Let me give some background on our story and characters. The family, the Morkans, own Springfield, Missouri’s limestone quarry and kiln. Michael Morkan, the father, is recently widowed, his wife Charlotte has died of smallpox. Cora Slade, a nurse, was at the smallpox camp where Charlotte Morkan died. And Cora Slade, too, later becomes a widow when her husband, Morkan’s blacksmith at the quarry, tumbles face first into the forge, not an uncommon way for a blacksmith with a drinking habit to go. These two widowed people have fallen together in comfort to one another, but also in secret in a town of just a little more than 2,000, my hometown in the Ozarks. Michael has ceased to go to Mass since his wife’s death, a problem. But there are more immediately mortal dangers ahead for Michael and his son Leighton and Michael’s lover Cora. A war that the majority of Missourians did not want is upon them.”
Then read from the book, and it will all take care of itself!