Occasionally I leave behind the elegant accents and faultless cravats of high-society classic literature and indulge myself with something a little more--shall we say--American. We're a pioneer people, and always have been. Comprised of colonists and poor immigrants and unlucky second sons, our nation come from quite a middle-class standard of living, and our literature shows it. American authors have rarely produced well-known classics, but our literary achievements, if not as well-known, at least carry the distinction of being thoroughly everyday. Logging, farming, hard work, charting new territory--all these are included in the essentially American novel, and today's book captures them with crystal clarity.
This, my story, is a very old one.
In the hills of life there are two trails. One lies along the higher sunlit fields where those who journey see afar, and the light lingers even when the sun is down. The other leads to the lower ground, where those who travel always look over their shoulders with eyes of dread, and gloomy shadows gather long before the day is done.
This, my story, is the story of a man who took the trail that leads to the lower ground, and of of a woman, and how she found her way to the higher sunlit fields. -The Shepherd of the Hills, Chapter One
The Matthews family is surprised one evening when a stranger knocks on their door and asks for shelter. They're more than willing to give it to him, but he's obviously a rich man, unused to their simple ways and quiet life in the Ozarks, and with quite an education to boot. His name is Daniel Howitt, and he's a famous city preacher who lost his grips with his faith, and was sent to the hills by his doctor to find it again.
He has an uncanny ability to make people feel comfortable opening up their sorrows to him. Mr. Matthews scarcely knows him twenty-four hours before he tells him of their six sons, all deceased, and the one beautiful daughter who died of a broken heart after being taken advantage of by a young artist painter. Daniel Howitt admits that he himself isn't without sorrows--his wife and daughter are dead, and his son recently left a suicide note, which is what drove him to the hills to rediscover his peace.
Old Matt doubts he'll find peace in the hills. But Daniel Howitt takes up the occupation of shepherd in the bottom of the valley, and begins to put together his own faith and the faith of those around him. Everyone loves him--Mad Pete, the illegitimate son of the Matthew's daughter by the scoundrel painter; Young Matt, who has the strength of a giant, and loves Sammy Lane; Sammy herself, who comes to Howitt and asks him to teach her how to be 'a really, truly lady'; and Jim Lane, Sammy's father, who used to be an outlaw and is trying to reform his ways.
The Shepherd of the Hills isn't a jaw-dropping story with unbelievable twists and characters. But while you're reading it they all feel like good friends, and a few blood feuds, a little hint of mystery, and a nice touch of romance combine to give a very enjoyable reading experience.
Word has it that tourism exploded in the Ozark hills after Wright released this book in 1907, and he certainly captures a wistful, restful sort of atmosphere with the scenery. The trails that the horses travel on, and a mix of rock and gentle slopes sound quite beautiful, and he does a good job capturing the atmosphere.
I especially enjoyed Young Matt's characterization. He was such a strong, simple-hearted, pure-minded young man who hit hard and shot straight and loved with a pure, single-minded devotion. He and Sammy Lane were a couple born for each other, and even though she was more educated in the end than he was as far as book learning went, they were quite on an equal scale in intelligence.
The Ozarks being a rough place at the time, there's some language, and quite a few references to hell and the devil, in a more free and easy manner than most people would use them, though not all swearing. Especially with the outlaws. The theme of illegitimacy is handled very appropriately, though, and all-in-all it's a good clean story with a solid Christian premise.
Harold Bell Wright is a slight mystery. And that being the case, I'm not surprised that I first heard of him through the Bethany House classic reprint line, of which Michael Phillips was at one time the editor.
Wright grew up with a wandering drunk of a father, and a dedicated Christian mother. Though she died when he was eleven years old, her influence in his life had a strong effect, and after a picking up odd jobs all through his teen years, he spent two years at Hiram College in Ohio, before taking up a Missouri pulpit.
In 1902 at the age of 30, Wright wrote his first story, and that, combined with his poor health, launched him into his writing career. Today's book, The Shepherd of the Hills, was his second novel and sold over a million copies.
Though he's almost unknown today, he ranked among the top best-selling authors in his day, and rivaled those of England for popularity. Frank Luther Mott made an interested graph (with best-seller defined as 'a book whose sales equal 1 percent of the US population') and Harold Bell Wright made a fairly respectable showing. Charles Dickens, according to this graph, had sixteen bestsellers; Sir Walter Scott had six; and James Fenimore Cooper, Gene Stratton-Porter, and Harold Bell Wright, were all tied at five bestsellers produced during their lifetime.
In spite of his success, Wright didn't have a particularly happy family life. He divorced his wife in 1917 after fathering two children, and died at the age of 72 from the lung disease he had struggled with all his life. But his books are worthy of note, for he wrote them in an attempt to speak out against the hypocrisy he saw in the church at the time. Similar to George MacDonald's aim, Wright used the power of characters and plot to preach a message that he could never speak from the pulpit. A good sermon and faithful church attendance, he said, needed some good Christian charity and daily ministry to back them up.
With all his failures and success, I still can't say that I know much about his theology. He pastored a church in the Disciples of God denomination, which is commonly classified as Protestant, but I know neither how far he aligned with them, nor much about this particular denomination itself. But this book at least seems to offer a solid biblical premise, as much as I am able to recall, and is a fairly safe bet for a good day's relaxation.
Sometimes in the hurry and grief of life we lose a bit of our connection with Christ and the things of heaven. The Shepherd of the Hills gives an enjoyable portrayal of a man finding a grip on his spiritual walk in the midst of 1900s Americana.