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Bill Bowen: In the middle of everything

‘The Boy From Altheimer’ is as brusque as the man himself.



The Boy From Altheimer: From the Depression to the Boardroom
By Bill Bowen, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, paperback, $19.95.

Among Little Rock movers and shakers, not many moved or shook more than Bill Bowen did in the period between Orval Faubus and Jim Guy Tucker.

Bowen, now retired, was a lawyer-banker who with his cold-blooded sidekick, Barnett Grace, blew through the financial community here with the same kick-butts-and-take-names style that fellow hard-asses Tommy Robinson and John Robert Starr and perhaps Sheffield Nelson were bringing to their respective River City spheres at roughly the same time. After his retirement from the rough-and-tumble, Bowen served two years as law school dean at UALR, and then he did a turn as Gov. Bill Clinton’s chief of staff in the period when Clinton was running for president, and then after he’d been nominated for president and elected president but still wouldn’t turn over the gubernatorial reins to Tucker, who was lieutenant governor and governor-elect. Bowen was pretty much acting governor during that tumultuous time.

He had a long interesting career, a formidable guy always in the big middle of everything, but his memoir comes off rather flat, as if he never got his belly-fire and deep-down self into the project. He names the names, leaves out none of the machinations, even turns over a few rocks -– but at the same time there’s no enthusiasm for the tale he’s telling. He seems always impatient to move on, unwilling to dawdle to tells stories or reminisce.

That brusqueness is Bowen’s public style and it’s obviously his writing style as well, so the problem here is the reader’s, not the author’s, and I wonder if the difficulty might lie to some extent anyway in how “The Boy From Altheimer” was put together. It seems to have been compiled piecemeal, and Bowen apparently had a number of collaborators working on the various segments so that the end product has something of the character of one of those documents that a big-time lawyer or banker or law-school dean orders up, after having done his part, with the notation that he expects to see it on his desk first thing in the morning.

The Rapture Dialogues

By Terry James, VMI Publishing, Sisters, Oregon, paperback, $14.99.

This is one of those End Times novels, touted by the movement’s blockbuster guru Tim LaHaye as a book that “weaves together an incredible tale involving mysterious UFO sightings, secret government cover-ups, international warfare, and frightening encounters with extra-dimensional beings” and other “fantastic events that set the stage for the biblically-prophesied Rapture of the Church and the Rise of the Anti-Christ.”

Who could imagine a novel chock-fuller of swell stuff than that?

The author is a former Little Rock advertising man who, after going blind in 1993 and retiring to Benton, became one of the world’s leading authorities on Biblical prophesy -– at least according to the promotional material sent out with the book. The Rapture Dialogues is the latest of more than two dozen books of both fiction and putative nonfiction that he has written.

Bearing Witness: Memories of Arkansas Slavery, Narratives from the 1930s WPA Collections, Second Edition

Edited by George E. Lankford, University of Arkansas Press, paperback, $34.95.

This is pricey for a paperback, but the slave narratives are an absolutely essential text in the study of Arkansas and American history, and this is certainly the best available packaging of the slavery accounts that pertain to Arkansas. The first edition of the book had transcripts of 176 interviews with ex-slaves and the children of slaves, and this new edition adds 10 accounts that weren’t known to exist previously.

This is harrowing stuff, and not wholly historically reliable in the particulars, as is always the case with eyewitness testimony. And some of the interviewers back in the 1930s were competent and disciplined and others weren’t. Still and all, the first-person accounts of what it was to be a slave in the United States of America are indispensible.

Also new from the University of Arkansas Press is a new edition of another of the essential Arkansas history texts, this one “Sawmill: The Story of Cutting the Last Great Virgin Forest East of the Rockies,” by Kenneth L. Smith. This is the story of the frantic logging that occurred on a massive scale in the Ouachita Mountains in the first half of the 20th century, and of the rise and utter disappearance of an entire way of life in the small towns built around the sawmills. Smith’s book may be most notable for its huge and wonderful collection of photographs of that lost way of life.

Barefootin’: Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom

By Unita Blackwell,, Crown Publishers, New York, hardcover, $23.

The author was born in Lula, Miss., in 1933, the daughter of a black sharecropper, which is enough said about her prospects. But she got pulled into the civil rights movement in the grim early years of the 1960s and became one of those despised and indefatigable SNCC field organizers, and not only survived the civil-rights upheaval but built a career around it. She ultimately became the first elected black woman mayor in Mississippi, in the small town of Mayersville, where she served for 20 years. With little formal education, she studied nights and weekends during her mayoralty and eventually took a master’s degree in government from the University of Massachusetts. She received one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants in 1992, and is currently a JFK School of Government Fellow at Harvard.

Her inspiring account apparently was mostly ghostwritten by Joanne Prichard Morris of Jackson, a distinguished editor and Willie Morris’ widow.


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