Wiegenstein’s latest novel, “The Language of Trees,” whisks readers to Madison County and Missouri’s eastern Ozarks. Wiegenstein’s characters live in the 1880s and are experiencing the chaos and promise that comes with change, specifically a timber boom that “changed the landscape and the people down there permanently,” the author said.

Here is the funny thing about history: Most of the time you don’t know you’re living in it until later. Someone comes along and points out what has been in plain sight or, years later, you step back to take the long view.
Steve Wiegenstein tries to remember this as he writes. The Columbia novelist situates imaginary people in particular places and real times. Yet he knows full well the great temptation of historical fiction. Writers can reach so high and hard for ideas that their characters become stand-ins or symbols, not authentically drawn people.
Wiegenstein’s latest novel, “The Language of Trees,” whisks readers to Madison County and Missouri’s eastern Ozarks. Wiegenstein’s characters live in the 1880s and are experiencing the chaos and promise that comes with change, specifically a timber boom that “changed the landscape and the people down there permanently,” the author said.

Almost Paradise
Each of Wiegenstein’s three books is concerned with what it means to live ordinary lives in a significant time. His debut, “Slant of Light,” orbits the Civil War; its follow-up, “This Old World,” is set in Reconstruction.
As a way into these distinctly American stories, Wiegenstein turned his gaze to the utopian communities of the 19th century, particularly the Icarians, a group that was formed in France and migrated to create communities in Texas and the Midwest.
Wiegenstein, a University of Missouri graduate who was a journalist first, then taught English and communications at colleges across the country, studied the Icarians for decades before using them as a model for his fictional community.
“There’s such a current in pre-Civil War America of infinite possibility,” he said, a current the Icarians exemplify.
That possibility was palpable as the timber industry came to the Ozarks in the late 19th century. What once was a “subsistence economy” was infused with cash, Wiegenstein said. Company towns were established and dictated the rhythms and contours of small-time life.
There was good there, but also the start of a troubling cycle — one in which industry came, took its pound of flesh and goods, then split for somewhere cheaper. The Ozarks bear the mark that cycle still today, Wiegenstein said.
“I’m not sure what the extraction is other than pretty pictures, because the Ozarks has become this kind of tourist economy,” he said. “But still it’s this sense of a place where people come to take something, and then get out.”

Where the tracks meet
Wiegenstein grew up in this region of Missouri. He lived near a sawmill, knew the family that ran it and gleaned edge wood with his brother to heat his family’s home. To this day, he retains great respect for those who ran that business and fueled the town’s economy.
“Even though I never had to do it for a living, I was always really keenly aware of the kind of risk people put themselves into in that kind of work,” he said. “I always had a real admiration for those guys, because there was really no harder work that I ever saw.”
Wiegenstein didn’t necessarily write those experiences into “The Language of Trees,” but his memories informed the work. So  did his background in journalism, which has shaped his style. He favors an “economical, clean” approach but believes such a style “doesn’t have to be plain.”
With each book, Wiegenstein has tried to recreate the voice and style of the writers of that day. He wants readers not to feel so much like readers, but like fellow residents. Their vernacular is his vernacular; he labors not to breach the mores of the time period.
Wiegenstein is already at work on books four and five, and hopes to reach seven or eight titles before his series ends. The next work will take place at the open of the American century, in the years 1903 and 1904.
He already has noticed two fascinating details of the time. That moment saw the emergence of the hillbilly stereotype.
Before that time, “you didn’t stereotype rural Americans because, chances are, you were one,” he said.