Arkansas fiction: Our readers’ favorites

Recently I posted a query on Facebook asking readers to list their favorite Arkansas authors, one each in fiction and nonfiction. I received scores of replies, and a few stragglers are still posting their favorites. While this exercise is in no way scientific or representative in its composition, the results are very interesting to me and, I suspect, to others. Today I address fiction, with nonfiction to follow.

A few novelists emerged quickly as favorites, including Donald Harington, Maya Angelou, and Charles Portis. Nonfiction nominees were more numerous and considerably more varied, ranging from colonial-era historian Judge Morris S. Arnold to folklorist Vance Randolph to journalist-raconteur-memoirist Roy Reed.

I fear I skewed the results by stating in the query that Harington's "Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks" was my favorite work of fiction. Still, numerous novelists were nominated, including some which were new to me. I have a lot of reading to do.

Many people agreed with me that "Architecture" is important, but a few nominated other books by Harington. Joshua Youngblood, rare books librarian at the University of Arkansas' Special Collections Department, prefers "Lightning Bug," the first of Harington's Stay More novels. Published in 1970, "Bug" introduced Latha Bourne, the postmistress at Stay More, who is forced to confront Every Dill, the rapist who attacked Latha 10 years earlier. Latha would emerge as an enduring figure in the Stay More series.

Harington, like Mississippi novelist William Faulkner, created an intertwined body of work set around a fictional town--Stay More, home of Stay Morons. While Harington, a Little Rock native educated as an art historian, was widely read in Arkansas, his work never caught on nationwide. Entertainment Weekly once referred to Harington as "America's greatest unknown writer." He died in 2009.

"True Grit," published in 1968, was written by Charles Portis, and was a runaway bestseller. It was originally published as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post. During the height of its popularity, Portis spoke to one of my English classes at the University of Central Arkansas in 1969. I recall him as quiet and maybe shy, or perhaps simply reserved.

Told from the perspective of an older woman named Mattie Ross, the story recalls the time when Mattie sought retribution for the killing of her father by a scoundrel named Tom Chaney who had fled to Indian Territory.

While the first movie version of "True Grit" was forgettable even though John Wayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of the washed-up former U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn, the 2010 version by the Coen brothers is vastly better in my opinion.

Charles Portis was a writer's writer. Literary figures across the spectrum have praised "True Grit" as a truly great American novel. Donna Tartt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning and immensely popular "The Goldfinch," is unstinting in her praise: "Portis caught better than any writer then alive the complex and highly inflected regional vernacular I heard spoken as a child--mannered and quaint, old-fashioned and highly constructed but also blunt, roughshod, lawless, inflected by Shakespeare and Tennyson and King James but also by agricultural gazetteers and frilly old Christian pamphlets, by archaic dictionaries of phrase and fable, by the voices of mule drivers and lady newspaper poets and hanging judges and hellfire preachers."

Another Portis favorite nominee was "Dog of the South," but I was surprised by the number of people who preferred Portis' early novel "Norwood" (1966).

A goodly number of other fiction writers were also nominated, including one of my favorites, Kevin Brockmeier of Little Rock. Janine Parry, UA political science professor, is keen on Brockmeier's "A Brief History of the Dead."

Two volumes by Francis Irby Gwaltney, a professor at Arkansas Tech in Russellville, were suggested, "The Day the Century Ended" and "Destiny's Chickens." "The Quicksand Years," a 1965 novel inspired by the Elaine Massacre of 1919, has received little attention.

The author of eight novels, Gwaltney never received the attention he deserved for his early work, especially "The Day the Century Ended," a World War II novel which addresses cultural differences between affluent and poor Arkansas soldiers in the south Pacific. It was favorably reviewed at the time of its publication in 1955, and it was made into a movie titled "Between Heaven and Hell" starring Robert Wagner, Buddy Ebsen, and Broderick Crawford.

John Grisham received several nominations for his 2001 novel "The Painted House." I'm a bit skeptical, but I guess being born in Jonesboro makes Grisham an Arkansas writer. Also, "Painted House" is set in northeast Arkansas, the only one of his works with an Arkansas setting. It was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 2003. Grisham is considered one of the best-selling authors of all time, having written 28 consecutive No. 1 fiction best-sellers.

Kat Robinson, a food writer with a growing following, nominated a very fine book "Big Doc's Girl" by the late Mary Medearis of Washington in Hempstead County. Though written for teenagers, the volume can be equally enjoyed by adults. Born in North Little Rock in 1915. Mary considered herself a musician, but while a student at The Juilliard School in New York, she took a class in creative writing at Columbia University--and "Big Doc's Girl" resulted.

Upon its publication in 1942, "Big Doc's Girl" was immediately successful, including inclusion on The New York Times' best-seller list. It was translated in several languages. The book was made into a play in 1957, followed later by its broadcast on television, with Gene Hackman being the lead actor. She settled in historic Washington, Ark., in 1975, and threw herself into local history work.

Ellen Gilchrist of Fayetteville had her share of nominations, especially for "Victory Over Japan" (1984). Grif Stockley, best known for his nonfiction, was recommended by several people for "Blind Judgment" (1997), one of his five novels.

A hint to my family: Many of these books would make excellent Christmas gifts.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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