Somewhere up a holler in Newton County along the road from Deer to Parthenon near the headwaters of the Buffalo River in the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks lies the fictional village of Stay More. Indeed, so precisely has novelist Donald Harington gone about locating the place that enchanted readers familiar with the area have been tempted to search for it. (As readers of Harington’s wonderful back-roads travel book, Let Us Build Us a City, already know, the novelist met his wife after she wrote him seeking directions.)
But one may as well sign up for a cruise to Swift’s Lilliput or trek through the Amazon rain forest in search of Gabriel García Márquez’s village of Macondo. An imaginary hamlet sited precisely on the boundary between fantasy and reality, Harington’s Stay More has served as the setting for one of the most charming and unusual sets of novels in contemporary American fiction. As the sixth in a series that began with The Cherry Pit — a series readable, incidentally, in any order at all — Harington’s latest may be his best. If there is any justice, The Choiring of the Trees — by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, ribald, satirical, and as gripping as any detective story — will bring the Fayetteville author the acclaim and wide readership his work has long deserved.
For a combination of historical and imaginative reasons, Harington’s books bear almost no resemblance to the South you hear about from professional Southerners or university professors of Southern Lit. Still a frontier at the time of the Civil War, the Ozarks pretty much remained so until the arrival of paved roads after World War II. As Harington points out at least once in each book, the actual Newton County remains the only county in Arkansas never penetrated by railroad tracks. Some towns there, Stay More among them, didn’t get electricity until the early ’60s.
Set in 1914-15, The Choiring of the Trees tells the tale of Nail Chism, an innocent rustic sentenced to death on a rape charge trumped up by his brother- in-law the county judge over a bootlegging dispute (the manufacture of corn whiskey, though technically illegal, being an Ozarks pastime as common as quilting or raising coonhounds). Transported to Little Rock — by Stay More standards a metropolis of incomprehensible size and sophistication — to await execution, Chism must first endure the horrors of a barbaric state penitentiary.
Enter one Viridis Monday, emancipated daughter of a prominent Little Rock banker, former habitue of Paris’ Left Bank, and staff artist for the Arkansas Gazette. Assigned by her newspaper to witness Chism’s execution and sketch his likeness for the front page, Monday becomes persuaded of the mountaineer’s innocence. Warned that the mere sight of a woman on horseback wearing jodphurs will reduce Stay More’s townsfolk to mute astonishment, she nevertheless sets off on a crusade to save him. Based on a true story, all this, incidentally, takes place in the opening chapters.
As in Harington’s previous Stay More novels, the tale of love and intrigue, escape and pursuit, murder and revenge that follows combines a realistic story with the ”tall tale” of the American frontier and the erotic enchantment of a medieval romance. And like its predecessors, the story is delivered in a sharply observed hillbilly accent entirely Harington’s own. If Huck Finn turned magical realist, The Choiring of the Trees is the book he would write. A