Deep in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, where ash trees moan and rivers run clear and wide, I came upon Garrison Keillor’s long-lost sister. Her name, she told me, is Judy Dockrey Young.
She has his compelling gaze and shoe-polish brown eyes. She has his dark eyebrows and simple haircut and wire-rim spectacles. Most of all, she has his voice: searing, tantalizing, tender.
Though separated while still in cradles, each developed an ear for the lore and lyrics of the regions they came to call home: for him, Minnesota; for her, Missouri. They listened to the folks in the fields and in the hollows. They remembered what they heard. They became storytellers.
Do you find that hard to believe? Well, you should. I guess I made it up, and yet it seemed true on that morning when I walked into the woods of Silver Dollar City, a pleasure park of 19th-Century crafts nestled near Branson.
That is when I first heard the branch-breaking voice of Judy Dockrey Young. That is when I first saw the 6-foot-tall spellbinder as she rose from a high-backed rocking chair.
Young had just spit out the bitter end of an Ozark ghost tale. A clutch of youngsters and grown-ups was still hanging by the thread of her words.
As they drifted off, I went up to meet this dynamo who resembles Keillor in a sunbonnet and long cotton dress. My questions were asked in a whisper. Her answers were louder than life.
She was a schoolteacher until 10 years ago, when she began spinning tales to amuse folks who came through on bus tours.
“I thought, ‘Shoot, I’ll find some Ozark stories in books and I’ll tell those for a living,’ ” she said. “But they are hard to find. Very hard to find. And so I started collecting stories, because this far down in the hills people still tell their children stories for amusement.
“As a matter of fact, there is a town close to where I live called Ben Hur, and they only got electricity in Ben Hur in 1968. We’re just barely a generation from a lot of people not having anything but one electric light bulb hanging in the middle of the room. Without electricity--without radio or television or records--people still tell their kids stories. Most of my material comes out of people’s mouths.”
Young was born in Rescue. Her daddy, she told me, was Irish. Dockrey is her maiden name. She has her Screen Actors Guild card and a master’s degree from Southwest Missouri State University.
Young remains rooted in the Ozarks.
“I don’t go hunting for movie gigs because I don’t want to come live where you live,” she said. “Nothing personal, but I go to California and I do films and when I get back to Stone County, I say, ‘Whee. Safe again.’ ”
So this crackling tale-teller brightens a corner in Silver Dollar City, a log-cabin village of quilters and carvers and spinners and broom makers, a merry place of dulcimer tunes and fresh-baked funnel bread. The park is open from April through October and this year, for the first time, on most November and December weekends.
As I reluctantly took leave of the 1880s and boarded my bus, I found it remarkable that Judy Dockrey Young had not mentioned her long-lost brother.
Perhaps she was in a village without electricity when he hit the big time on public radio. There, near the Lake of the Ozarks, she may not have heard of Lake Wobegon.
Don’t believe that, either.