Brief Encounters

Short reviews of Ghost of the Ozarks, News for All the People and After the Fall
April 9, 2012

Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South | By Brooks Blevins | University of Illinois Press | 304 pages, $29.95

The “quirky crime” story was an inescapable aspect of newspaper culture in the 1920s. Publications hundreds of miles distant, scanning for news that would entertain, would dispatch reporters to cover a trial in some forsaken crossroads, aiming to caricature the natives and amuse their urban audience.

Such was the case that is anatomized in Ghost of the Ozarks. The locus was a backwoods town in the Arkansas Ozarks called Mountain View. The crime was the apparent murder by a group of local ruffians of a young drifter, Connie Franklin, and, possibly, the rape of his intended. A gaggle of reporters from up and down the Mississippi valley turned up, and jumped to their conclusions, based on what they believed they knew about hillbilly culture: a stew of Hatfields and McCoys, night riders, peonage, and even ius primae noctis. The story got even better when Franklin, or his double, or his ghost, turned up at the trial. In the end, the defendants were acquitted and the reporters went home, but the case was hardly clarified. Were there two Connie Franklins? Who did what to whom? And why?

Who better to undo the knot than a professor of Ozark studies? Brooks Blevins, a native of the Ozarks, works at Missouri State University, 150 miles from Mountain View. He burrows deep into the family lines, the social relationships, and the economy of the tiny community, unraveling the incident thread by thread, tracking the tale down to descendants still living today. He never claims to have uncovered the whole truth (although he has come to believe that the real Connie Franklin appeared at the trial and died two or three years later), but in the process he dispels many of the myths about the alleged backwardness of the people of the Ozarks, and creates a fascinatingly complex work of historical sociology/ethnology. And the tale of Connie Franklin, it appears, will never die; the incident is commemorated on Wikipedia, and one can even buy on eBay a newspaper front page featuring the trial.

News for All the People: The Epic story of Race and the American Media | By Juan González and Joseph Torres | Verso | 453 pages, $29.95

Juan Gonzáles, activist and longtime columnist for the New York Daily News, and Joseph Torres, senior external-affairs director at the media reform organization Free Press, spent more than seven years assembling News for All the People. They had two ambitious goals: to provide a history of the development of “the American system of news,” with emphasis on the government’s role; and to construct an account of the struggle across the “fundamental fault-line” of race and ethnicity that shaped both mainstream and dissident media. Either theme could have constituted a whole book.

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For this reader, the struggle trumps policy. The stories of Hispanic, Native-American, African-American, and Asian-American journalists risking lives and well-being to raise their voices, constitute the true heart of this book. Some of the pioneers’ names are reasonably familiar—Elias Boudinot of the Cherokee Phoenix, John Russwurm of Freedom’s Journal, Fèlix Varela of El Habanero, and Wong Chin Foo of the Chinese American. But there are dozens of others rescued from obscurity, ranging from Joaquín de Lisa and Joseph Antonio Boniquet, founders in 1809 of El Mensajero of New Orleans, to Ruben Salazar of Los Angeles, assassinated while covering a riot in 1970.

Their heroism was inspired by the bitterness and ferocity of racial and ethnic conflict in the US. News for All the People offers constant reminders that this conflict has been a true civil war with serious casualties, lasting through many decades and perhaps not yet ended. The journalists portrayed here recognized that journalism was a weapon of resistance. If there have been advances, it is in good part because such journalism, bravely wielded, can fight the good fight.

After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 2001 and the Years That Followed | Edited by Mary Marshall Clark, Peter Bearman, Catherine Ellis, and Stephen Drury Smith | The New Press | 263 pages, $26.95

Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office, headed by Mary Marshall Clark, went to work immediately after September 11, 2001, and has now issued a selection from its hundreds of interviews with those most directly involved—first responders, victims’ families, residents of lower Manhattan. But they record more than the immediate impact; the interviewers followed up for years afterward. The interviews make clear the distance between those who will go on distressfully reliving their experience forever and those of us who were merely bystanders.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.