The Shepherd of the Hills was the book that put Harold Bell Wright on the national stage, but his career didn’t end there. As Wright’s popularity continued to grow so did the sales of his books. When A Son of His Father was published in 1925, it took 27 boxcars to transport the first printing of 600,000 copies (Lawrence Tagg, Harold Bell Wright: Storyteller to America).
How can one account for the success of Wright’s books? Certainly, the power of his imagination to create compelling stories and persuasive characters has much to do with his popularity. And he was an author particularly suited to his time. But more than anything, the generosity of his spirit endeared him to Americans. For Wright, how you live and what you do are always more important than what you say or what you claim to believe. His heroes and heroines are compassionate and forgiving–they tell the truth, regardless of how unpopular that truth might be–but they are also deeply concerned with justice, and they are courageous in their defense of the underdog, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Wright’s heroes despise hypocrisy.
The reason Wright understood heroism in these terms can be found in the desperate poverty and exploitation of his childhood. His mother died when he was 11, and his father was alcoholic and recklessly irresponsible. Wright found himself shifted from one household to another or living again with his father, who was hardly able to put food on the table. Several of those who took the boy in treated him as an outcast and forced him to work at arduous tasks far beyond his years. At the low point of his childhood, Wright was living with his father on the top floor of a saloon. His only friend was a hunchbacked old woman who washed dishes for the brothel next door. She became his mother figure and taught him what she could from the hardships of her own life. Wright discovered that love and encouragement have nothing to do with beauty or wealth. And he vowed never to exploit the poverty and misery of others for his own gain.
As a result, some of Wright’s works might seem too optimistic, too squeaky clean. But Wright never wavered from his notion that profiting from the misery of others was nothing more than exploitation because he had suffered exploitation himself. The virtues that Wright advocates are precisely those we need today: Forgiveness, compassion, a stalwart belief that the truth is always better than a lie, and righteous indignation at injustice.
In the end, these aren’t merely virtues we need like some sort of medicine, but virtues we deeply desire, like good food. We want friends who continue to love us even after we’ve let them down. We want to be trusted even when we’ve been posers. We want a home that is green and unspoiled and authentic. We want to be forgiven. In the end–when we’re honest with ourselves–we want to believe in The Shepherd of the Hills.