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John Spragens, Jr. BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Thin Soil Back Home A Land-Loss Tale About East Texas BY PAT LITTLEDOG KEEPERS OF THE EARTH. By Laverne Harrell Clark. Cinco Puntos Press. Somewhere in mythical East Texas lies a piece of farmland with a dilapidated farmhouse, where everyone came from before moving to Dallas or Houston or Austin. This is no misty Brigadoon fantasy, but a fact with its own statistical evi dence. Consider that at the onset of World War II, 70 percent of the state’s population was rural, declining to 40 percent at the war’s end, when young men refused to return to the plow after tours of duty in hard-to-take places like Paris and Berlin. The rural decline has continued to the present day, when the population figures have completely flipped, from 90 percent rural at the beginning of the century to 90 percent urban in the here and now. Many of that 90 percent can still name a county or a spot on a farm-tomarket road as their point of family origin. Hollywood has told the stories of all the urban cowboys, but what about the urban farmers, and all that nostalgia they can whip up for scenes from their childhood, of granddaddy’s pastures and plow animals before all the daddies sold out for suburban lives? No wonder that so many of the grandchildren grow up and dream of driving back to that special place, and maybe reuniting there with all the other scattered members of their ex-farming families and having a Sunday chicken dinner together, a la Soul Food, just one more time before the lights go out and the stars fall out of the sky. Laverne Harrell Clark grew up in rural Texas, and eventually traded her hometown of Smithville for somewhere out in Arizona. That transition provides the major auchetypal components of this Land-Loss Tale, which may be the only story really worth telling to the present Texas generation of the mostly Walled-In. Laverne has told that tale ably enough to win for herself a “Medicine Pipe Bearer’s Award” from the Western Writers of America for 1997’s “Best First Novel.” The central dilemma of the Lost Tribes of Texas and the dilemma that confronts Clark’s Munday family is that while thoughts of the old days of farming and close family ties remain laden with nostalgia, no one can ever actually see themselves leaving city conveniences, like a.c. and a steady cash flow, to return to the life that brought both the family and .the fields into their original production. Such a move would require some windfall, so that the return to the farmhouse could be made without the return to the labor of farming. For Silvester Munday, that opportunity is retirement from a job in Austin, where he has been living with his wife. The author never reveals what Silvester Munday had done before he retired, but from the great botch he makes of the roof repair on his ancestral home, we can conclude it wasn’t any kind of carpentry. Readers of this story won’t need that kind of background detail, because this is the mythical Retirement for the unwealthy who want to preserve their comfort while they get back to where they once belonged, by finding one of the few roads back home. The old Munday farm is located only thirty miles or so outside the city, but Silvester hadn’t made the trip for a long time. When he finally does, in the mid-sixties, he finds the house dilapidated and the grounds overgrown \(archetype of the Ruined GarIt’s going to take a great deal of money for repairs and exterminators to bring the old place up to modern code but the farm just happens to sit above an oil-rich formation called the Austin Chalk. So Silvester schemes to take advantage of the recent oil speculation in the neighborhood and his brother Manny’ s greed, by allowing Manny to talk a big oil company into leasing and drilling the land provided that Manny will use the royalties to restore the family house. Silvester sees the old place as a Munday clubhouse for weekend congeniality, even though the Mundays have AUGUST 28, 1998 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER