A River of Life?

My hometown, Branson, began 114 years ago, when Reuben Branson established the Branson Post Office. It incorporated in 1912 and has reinvented itself several times. While each new Branson has been more florid and exciting than the previous ones, there is some kind of essential concept DNA about Branson that remains the same. What is it? Some candidates for the title come to mind: Family values, hillbillies, a slow pace of life, scenic views, country music or a specific current of Christianity.

For Todd Parnell, a 59-year-old banker from one of Branson's oldest families, Branson has always been driven by the White River, which flows past the town's historic center. He describes its impact in his new book, Postcards from Branson: A Century of Family Reminiscence. "To even begin to understand Branson, Missouri...," writes Parnell, "it is essential to own a sense of the White River."

When settlers arrived, the White River was the main highway into and out of Taney County. This lasted until the late 1800s. At that time, the same railroad that turbo-charged Springfield's Commercial Street "all but eliminated" the White River as the link between southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Formerly, goods flowed south, down-river, to market. Now they wheeled north toward Springfield's rail stop. Thus the White River basin was opened to the outer world, sparking an economic expansion that continues even now.

In 1907, the U.S. Congress declared the White River not navigable, paving the way for Powersite Dam's creation. Outside money and people power came into Taney County (my great-grandfather, an engineer named Charles Henry Holman, came down from St. Louis to work on the project). With the dam completed in 1913, the White River became Lake Taneycomo, a bucolic tourism destination.

I could add a few details to Parnell's take on Branson origins: The hillbilly caricature was created for marketing waterside resorts. The idyll of water, trees and hills was mythologized in Harold Bell Wright's The Shepherd of the Hills. This attracted tourists. Musicians such as the Baldknobbers capitalized on it, and a culture grew up that stretched to include Wayne Newton, Charley Pride and Shoji Tabuchi. Today, with Branson Landing's mall-downtown, the White River has morphed yet again.

Parnell believes that the White River's essential function of defining Branson will continue-if the river is "protected from abuse and overuse." Along with the likes of Peter Herschend and John L. Morris, Parnell is on the board of the Upper White River Foundation, formed in 2002 to improve deteriorating water quality in Missouri and Arkansas.

With this stage setting for the book, Parnell brings his characters out. They are his family members. Writing in the first-person singular, Parnell apes the voices of four men: James Madison Parnell, his great-grandfather, who died in 1918; Benjamen Albert Parnell, his grandfather, who died in 1970; Ben Albert Parnell, Jr., his father; and Todd Parnell's brother, Dr. William Patrick Parnell.

These Parnells have been in the thick of Branson things ever since they arrived in 1907. A Parnell founded one of the first mercantile stores. Parnells were among the first bankers. They presided over major New Deal infrastructure improvements. A Parnell was mayor.

Parnell's book is also exceptional. The cover, festooned with black-and-white images from different Branson eras, gives you the impression the book is nonfiction. It isn't. Postcards doesn't fit into any Recognized Literary Genre you learned of in high school. It is "fact-based fiction," as Parnell refers to it in his preface. By writing in the first person, Parnell has made an imaginary oral history from inside the minds of his family. He conducted long, video-recorded interviews with family members, especially his parents. He researched many primary sources. But he wrote, rather than recorded, the narratives.

Parnell deserves credit for being upfront on this point, but I wish the book's cover said "Imagining a Century of Family Reminiscence," not just "A Century of Family Reminiscence," just to be super-clear. Labelling is important. Book publishing has had a recent crisis with some bestselling "memoirists" (example: the recovered drug addict James Frey) simply lying. Parnell's response, when I asked him about it, is that he's "a reporter in this. I report stories as they were told to me."

Fair enough. He has an honest reputation. As I read the work, my skepticism evaporated. Take this passage, "spoken" by Parnell's grandfather, then a 35-year-old in 1919, expecting his first child with his wife, Opal:

Opal doesn't say, but I think the adjustment to marriage has been difficult for her. She's much younger than I, and she lost her father just months after we wed. She admired him more than anyone. [...]

I sometimes wonder if she chose me for that reason-a father type. I think she learned frugality from him. He wrote her not more than a month after we were married and chastised her for being "too expensive on me" by getting a new pair of shoes. Said she could have made it through the summer without shoes[...]. I only saw the letter because it fell off her nightstand. I think the whole incident embarrassed her.

Those words sum up classical Taney County mores: Hard-working, frugal, conscientious to a fault, unwilling to bring anything unpleasant into the open. I think any Branson native will recognize the truth here.

Parnell told me he loves sitting around reminiscing. Bransonites who read Postcards will, too, but I think people from elsewhere will find much to learn. Refreshingly, they'll have Parnell's broad view of history and well-observed insights to help them-an insightful voice that doesn't bear much resemblance to the hillbilly marketing totem.
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