Most of us have experienced the distinct pleasure of scrutinizing a work of art in person or studying a printed version in a book. We wonder, perhaps, what kind of relationship exists between the man and woman in the painting, or what might be going on in that house in the distance.
Award-winning author and KC native Donna Baier Stein has done just that and more in her latest book, “Scenes from the Heartland: Stories Based on Lithographs by Thomas Hart Benton.”
A chromolithograph of Benton’s “Spring Tryout,” a gift from her parents, was Stein’s original source of inspiration. She was pondering what to write next as she gazed at the familiar image. It depicts a young boy attempting to rein in a rambunctious horse, while both his hat and his riding companion have been abruptly relocated. The idea of basing a narrative on this subject was immensely appealing to the author, as she was determined to escape the autobiographical nature of her previous work.
Obviously, Stein relied heavily upon her imagination as she contemplated other Benton lithographs for her “Scenes from the Heartland” stories. But she also searched for nuggets of historical information, and those facts also ended up providing inspiration. “I Got a Gal on Sourwood Mountain” depicts a fiddler in a dance hall where a group of dancers are enjoying his lively music. Stein not only learned about what kinds of tools were used to make a fiddle in the 1930s, but all kinds of details about life in Middle America of the ’30s and ’40s: Fels Naptha soap, the State Asylum in St. Joseph, and a church in New Madrid straddling the state line where half of the congregation sat in Missouri and the other half in Kentucky.
“I read about county fairs and Esso gas pumps, Model B Fords and victory gardens, traveling preachers and gangsters like Owen Meany and Lucky Luciano . . . I wanted to learn about the America that came before me,” she said.
Stein grew up in Kansas City and has a great affection for both her hometown and its most famous artist. She has used flyover country as the setting for her work in the past. Her first book, “The Silver Baron’s Wife,” details the ups and downs of Baby Doe Tabor in Colorado.
Hardy Midwestern folk inhabit both Benton’s lithographs and Stein’s stories. And yet, in concocting these salt-of-the-earth tales, the author made another important discovery. “Despite my initial desire to stop writing semi-autobiographical fiction, despite escaping to times and places radically different from my own, parts of my own psyche seeped through. As I wrote, I found that these long-dead folks Benton had painted had interior struggles not so different from my own. Marital and parental challenges. Their griefs, their grit, their great loves and losses were, in fact, part of me three-quarters of a century later.”