Marideth Sisco’s essay “You’re Not from Here, Are You?” gives this issue of Elder Mountain its integral sense of place, a right-away taste of the people, culture and world of the Ozarks. Sisco remembers “lying on the porch on summer nights or curled up by the woodstove in winter,” listening to her relatives tell stories. Indeed stories and the people who tell them are the heart of Sisco’s writing and all the varied pieces that follow in this volume.
Sisco writes of working for a small Ozarks press newspaper in which she was the only Ozarks native; she was the reporter people would talk to, trusted because “she speaks the language.” And she does. Sisco has more than just good memories of the Ozarks. She reflects on the region’s racism: “I remember a time when I knew everything there was to know about African American people,” she writes of her childhood, going on to add that before she turned twenty she had never met an African American. In this opening piece Sisco has laid out a picture of the Ozarks people showing them as they are: human, both as strange and familiar as it is possible to be.
Four poems provide both transition and breathing room as the reader dives deeper into the heart of the Ozarks, and poem clusters like this appear throughout the journal. Ben Bogart’s “Angel of Death in the Henhouse” captures the grim reality of a farmer’s life: “His boots smell of a thousand chicks’ painful / agonies, / coated in filth, rotting as his steps crunch.”
Matt Brennan’s “Reclamation” is more difficult to connect with the Ozarks theme. Fictional features like Ryan Stone’s “Cold Start” focus more on character than on setting but, as we saw in Sisco’s essay, people are the Ozarks, and Stone’s deft writing allows us to know both their warmth and their pride. Other stories, like Dave Malone’s “A Good Way to Die,” add less to the Ozarks feel and could have appeared in any popular fiction journal. But the writing is eloquent and the story still worth a read.
The indiscriminant placement of poetry, fiction and essays throughout the journal encourages readers to browse and to discover jewels in genres that, were the journal more traditionally divided, they might have skipped altogether. The lack of genre designation can be a bit confusing when it comes to telling the fiction pieces from the often first-person nonfiction accounts, and at times I found myself returning to the table of contents, where works are listed by their genre, just to make sure I knew what I was reading. Genre labels might have been nice but however random the placement of works appears, the overall effect is fluid and cohesive.
When the last page is turned, readers will feel they have experienced the Ozarks in all its shapes and faces.