The region known as "The Ozarks" sprawls across southern Missouri as well as parts of northwestern and north central Arkansas, spilling over into Oklahoma and a small corner of Kansas. In area it's about the size of the state of Tennessee, in topography it's similar to the Appalachian region with rolling hills, plateaus (e.g. the Springfield and Salem Plateau regions), and rougher, mountainous terrain in the Saint Francois and Boston Mountain ranges. Referred to as the "American Highlands," it features hundreds of caves, springs, and natural arches, some of which are protected as a part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways National Park
The origin of the word "Ozark" is uncertain, but one popular theory is it's a corruption of the French "Aux Arkansas," or of/at Arkansas. The people living in the Ozark region are largely of German, English, and Scots-Irish ancestry, having cultivated their own culture in an area largely segregated from the outside world. Fiddle music, square dancing, and wild folk tales have been passed along over the years via a strong oral tradition.
With such rich cultural customs and such a gorgeous natural backdrop, the Ozarks have become the setting for many fabulous stories, such as:
Where the Red Fern Grows
(1961) by Wilson Rawls is a children's novel whose main character, Billy Coleman, flashes back on his life after nursing an injured Red Bone Coonhound
he rescued from a fight. As a child, Coleman had been passionate about owning coonhounds, saving his money to buy two puppies. Caring for the dog reminds him of a childhood spent in the Ozarks, invoking the folk belief that red ferns can only be planted by angels - the red ferns he found growing between the graves of the two dogs he'd owned as a child. The novel was adapted to film in 1974.
The Shepherd of the Hills
(1907) by Harold Bell Wright has been adapted into a musical still performed in Branson, Missouri. A popular local folktale, the story is a mystery centered on an old man, Dad Howitt, nicknamed "Shepherd of the Hills." A loner with a tragic past, the Shepherd's story coincides with that of two star-crossed lovers, the religious significance of the "shepherd" ultimately tying in with the message of redemption.
For more information on life and literature in The Ozarks, and for a list of more books set in this region, read the 1995 article entitled "A Glance at Readin' An' Ritin' in The Ozarks
" by John Wesley Hall.
Image of Big Spring, the largest freshwater spring in the Ozarks, by Kbh3rd.