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OPINION | REX NELSON: All about Arkansas

by Rex Nelson | November 29, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.

I'm an avid reader, and many of my friends are readers. I believe books make the best Christmas gifts.

I'm also an Arkansas history nerd. My preferences lean toward nonfiction works about Arkansas. In the cover story for today's Perspective section, I trace the history of the University of Arkansas Press. What follows is a list of several books the press has released during the past couple of years. I've read and can recommend all the books on this list, which is geared toward lovers of Arkansas history:

• "Das Arkansas Echo: A Year in the Life of Germans in the Nineteenth-Century South" by Kathleen Condray: A thriving population of German-speaking immigrants in the late 19th century supported three German-language newspapers in Arkansas. A complete collection of Das Arkansas Echo still exists. Condray mined that collection to show us what life was like during that period for these newcomers.

Condray, an associate professor of German at UA, has published numerous articles on migration and national identity. She's a recipient of two Fulbright awards, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant and national teaching awards. She says, "Much has been written regarding German-speaking immigrants in the Northeast and Midwest, yet those in the South have left less of an impression on the collective history of the United States."

• "Winthrop Rockefeller: From New Yorker to Arkansawyer, 1912-1956" by John Kirk: There have been books written about Rockefeller's Arkansas years. Kirk now digs into the former governor's family background, New York childhood, education, rise in the oil industry, military service in World War II, post-war work in the area of race relations, marriage to and divorce from Barbara "Bobo" Sears, and the birth of their only child (future Arkansas Lt. Gov. Win Paul Rockefeller).

Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and author or editor of 10 books. His detailed account of Rockefeller's first 44 years gives insight into a man who would become one of the most important figures in 20th-century Arkansas.

• "Better Living By Their Own Bootstraps: Black Women's Activism in Rural Arkansas, 1914-1975" by Cherisse Jones-Branch: This book represents the first major study of Black women's activism in rural Arkansas. Jones-Branch highlights everyone from teachers to home demonstration agents employed by the Cooperative Extension Service.

Jones-Branch is the James and Wanda Lee Vaughn Endowed Professor of History at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. She says her book provides the women profiled "with the visibility in the historical record that they so rightly deserve. ... African American women's rural uplift activism throughout Arkansas resulted from the groundswell of grassroots networks they cultivated and utilized within and beyond their communities."

• "The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Arkansas: How Protestant White Nationalism Came to Rule a State" by Kenneth Barnes: In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had more than 150 Arkansas chapters and tens of thousands of members. Barnes says the Klan established Little Rock as a seat of power second only to Atlanta. Klansmen led businesses and held elected offices throughout the state.

Barnes is now retired following a distinguished career as a history professor at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. He says: "The information for this study has come largely from newspapers of the 1920s. The modern reader would be surprised at how public the Klan made its activities. The KKK frequently sent letters to local newspapers, describing the organization's goals and activities."

• "Jerome and Rohwer: Memories of Japanese American Internment in World War II Arkansas": This is a collection of brief memoirs written by former internees of the two Arkansas camps and their close family members. It was edited by Walter Imahara and David Meltzer. The relocation centers in southeast Arkansas were the two camps farthest from the West Coast.

The accounts describe life in the barracks, fields, mess hall and gathering places. The collection is the only work composed solely of autobiographical remembrances of life in Jerome and Rohwer. It's likely the last book of its kind as remaining internees die.

• "Queen of the Hillbillies: Writings of May Kennedy McCord": The woman once known as First Lady of the Ozarks and Queen of the Hillbillies spent half a century sharing the history, songs and stories of the Ozarks through radio programs and newspaper columns. This collection of her work was edited by granddaughter Patti McCord and Missouri State University professor Kristene Sutliff.

"The distinctive culture of the Ozarks has been preserved through those who lived it and shared by those who love it," says Kaitlyn McConnell, founder of the cultural preservation project Ozarks Alive. "May Kennedy McCord did both of these things. Her words, based on pure devotion to the region and its people, not only benefited her contemporaries but will also inspire new readers who can now see the Ozarks through her eyes."

• "Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Massacre of 1919" by Grif Stockley, Brian Mitchell and Guy Lancaster: This is an update of a book first published in 2001. In his review of the first edition of the book, Arkansas journalist Bob Lancaster described it as "the last word on the great horror that occurred over in the Arkansas Delta."

In their introduction to the revised edition, the authors wrote: "Though he meant the review as a compliment, no work on the events in Phillips County in 1919 could be considered the last word. The fact that this revised edition exists demonstrates that much remained to be uncovered when the original book was published... . We still lack a great deal of knowledge about the affair, most notably specific details as to the number and names of all the victims and the location of their graves."

• "Double Toil and Trouble: A New Novel and Short Stories by Donald Harington:" This is the first new volume of fiction in more than a decade by Harington, who died in 2009. It features a long-lost suspense novel and four previously unpublished or uncollected stories. It adds to the story of Stay More, the fictional Ozarks village that serves as the setting for more than a dozen Harington novels.

Harington taught art history in New York City, New England and South Dakota before coming home to Arkansas to teach at UA for 22 years. He was the author of 15 novels and received the Oxford American Lifetime Award for Contributions to Southern Literature, the Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction and the Porter Prize for Literary Excellence.

The collection was edited by Brian Walter, an English professor and longtime Harington scholar. The appendix features Harington's correspondence with the editor who first inspired the title novel. That gives readers an insider's look at the literary scene.

• "Shared Secrets: The Queer World of Newbery Medalist Charles J. Finger" by Elizabeth Findley Shores: Finger was a prolific writer who settled in Fayetteville after a life of travel and adventure. One of his adventure books won the Newbery Prize for children's literature. His father was a German tailor and his mother was Irish. Finger was born in England in 1867.

Shores, an independent scholar who lives in Little Rock, offers a look at the community of gay writers and artists who helped shape 20th-century American culture, often through what are described as coded signals and winking asides. From 1920-35, Finger published a magazine known as All's Well. It was a mixture of essays about the Ozarks and literary columns.

Finger wrote 36 books after settling in Fayetteville. He died in January 1941 at Gayeta, the name of the homestead he purchased after moving to Fayetteville in 1920.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Print Headline: OPINION | REX NELSON: All about Arkansas

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