Andrea Reads America: Oklahoma

map of oklahoma books
Andrea Reads America: Oklahoma

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Oklahoma. I’ve never been there, I’ve never seen Oklahoma!, and I don’t know anything about the state. After reading the parts of Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina that took place in Oklahoma, and especially after reading Mean Spirit, I know a lot more. I learned about the Osage Indians, who, when mistreated by the US like so many tribes, wound up on barren lands in Oklahoma, they became unexpectedly rich when oil was discovered beneath their territory. In the 1920s, they were the richest people per capita on earth. Maria Tallchief, an Osage Indian who became a ballerina during that time was able to do so because of her wealth and privilege. Unlike so many Native Americans, her family had the resources to travel, to own a piano, to buy her lessons.

Awesome, right, that the original inhabitants of this land finally caught a break after being so mistreated? What a thumb in the eye of the invaders who took so much from them. Except, in the same way the US has been awful to all Native Americans, it was awful to the Osage Indian Nation. In the 1920s, Osage land owners began going missing, and deemed incompetent for managing their land, and getting murdered. And the people who investigated those murders were murdered. The Osage land was stolen from them, again, now that it was fertile with oil. The Osage Indian murders of the 1920s were one of the FBI’s earliest responsibilities. I didn’t read the book about that, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, but I wish I would have read that instead of Where the Dead Sit Talking.

mean spirit book coverNovel: Mean Spirit
Author: Linda Hogan of the Chickasaw Nation
Setting: 1920s Osage Indian land, Oklahoma

Mean Spirit tells the story I mentioned above, a story I had never known: the story of the Osage Indians whose barren land was rich with oil. It is a fictionalized account of the Osage murders written about in Killers of the Flower Moon, which begin with the murder of one woman, then radiate to dozens of others.

Nothing should come as a surprise to me anymore, especially when it comes to the way Native Americans are treated on the land whites stole from them, but with every Native book I read, I hope against hope it will turn out differently than it does. The sad truth is we know what happens in the end.

The Indian world is on a collision course with the white world… It’s more than a race war. They are waging war with the earth.

Most other Native American fiction I’ve read shares the story of the crappy land the people are shunted off to — land that doesn’t produce, land that the whites deemed worthless, and so were fine with putting Indians on it. Likewise, the Osage Indians were on arid, useless land. Until they discovered oil beneath it.

They put us on this godforsaken land and no one knew what was underneath it, but even with all this oil and money, it seems we can’t come out ahead.

Mean Spirit shares the Osage story. How they became rich from their oil, unimaginably rich, and were murdered for it once whites realized the resources they had unknowingly “given up.” They couldn’t stand to not have that wealth for themselves, and they systematically killed Osage land owners. Whites at nearly every level of government were involved in the murders, until the Osage were so afraid of being killed that they abandoned the land.

But that’s not all this book is about. Woven into it is a deep connection with nature and the land, a connection whites disregard because they lack respect for the earth and for others’ spirituality.

where the dead sit talking book coverNovel: Where the Dead Sit Talking
Author: Brandon Hobson, member of Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma
Setting: 1980s Oklahoma

Sometimes I read a book, and I get to the end, and I have no idea what just happened. This was one of those books. It’s one of those ones that gets nominated for awards and is named a Best Book — it was a 2018 National Book Award Finalist and named a best book of the year by NPR’s Code Switch — but I don’t get it, and I don’t care enough to try to figure it out.

This is about a Native American boy, Sequoyah, who goes into foster care with the Troutt family when his mom goes to prison. He bonds with the two other foster kids at the Troutts, one of whom, Rosemary, is also Native American.

In Where the Dead Sit Talking there is darkness and adolescent difficulty, and frankly life difficulty, and in the end it is about a boy who doesn’t know who he is. He’s been floating, unmoored his whole life, not just from his ancestry but from his closest family as well — his parents. He doesn’t know his roots.

That’s about as deep as I understood it.

the outsiders by s.e. hinton book coverNovel: The Outsiders
Author: S.E. Hinton, born Tulsa, Oklahoma
Setting: 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma

Set in 1960s Tulsa Oklahoma, in a town large enough to have rival gangs — the Greasers and the Socs (short for socials) — The Outsiders tells the poignant story of abandoned, rough, poor boys, Greasers who grease their hair and start smoking as early as age nine. They get into trouble, they get into fights, and they are constantly being harassed by the Socs, who jump them and beat them to a pulp for no reason other than the Socs have power and privilege, and the greasers do not.

Why did the Socs hate us so much? We left them alone.

Narrated by a sensitive boy, a Greaser, who is both loyal and able to see beyond his own gang, The Outsiders is a classic story about the common struggles of all people. Everyone suffers hardships, regardless of what side they’re on. Strip away wealth and social status, and people are more similar than they realize. Yet they commit pointless, futile violence against each other all the same.

I only wanted to lie on my back under a tree and read a book or draw a picture, and not worry about being jumped or carrying a blade.

The Outsiders is wise, beautiful, and sad. It’s amazing the author wrote this when she was 16.

Andrea Reads America: Ohio

Andrea Reads America map of Ohio books
Andrea Reads America: Ohio

Ohio was a mixed bag of books that surprised me. The first, Winesburgh, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, is a book of short stories that probably provided the best sense of place for early small town Ohio. The stories felt lacking to me in a way I can’t put my finger on, though, and I wasn’t a fan.

The next book was the most surprising because it was the first I’d read set in Ohio during the westward expansion of the United States. There were apple orchards, swamps, and what seemed like Southern dialect, and while the apple orchards fit into my image of Ohio, the swamp, land claim, and the dialect did not. They all make sense — Ohio’s northern border is a Great Lake, Ohio was once unsettled land west of the eastern cities of the time, and Ohio’s southern border is with Kentucky and West Virginia. I just never put it all together until I read Tracy Chevalier’s At the Edge of the Orchard.

And finally, Celeste Ng brings us into the 1970s, where the prejudice and slurs against Chinese Americans in the small town her book is set shocked me and made me sad (that’s not what Everything I Never Told You is about, it is just the part that surprised me). The book is amazing. It is smart, compelling, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages. It was one of those treats of my reading project.

Winesburgh, Ohio book coverBook: Winesburg, Ohio
Author: Sherwood Anderson, born Camden Ohio
Setting: Late 1800s small town Ohio

This book gets wild acclaim, but it was a total snoozefest for me. A compilation of short stories of odd and lonely characters in a small town in northern Ohio, it reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s stories (though it predates her), but not nearly as good. It lacked something. I kept wanting it to be better, to go a little bit further with the characters, but it never did, and therefore was a disappointment. It ended up being a bunch of sad, lonely characters who all end up raving in the woods, running down Main Street shouting, or ripping off their clothes and running around outside (or if they haven’t done any of these things, they really want to).

It sounds like it would make for good reading, but it just didn’t for me. Even though they each got their own short story, the characters were sad and lonely in the same way, and they all tried to free themselves by running out of their skin or shouting out of their minds.

Though I didn’t enjoy spending my time on this book, I do understand why it is remarkable. There are some gems that sparked me out of my boredom, like this hopeless moment of self-realization:

I am a lover and have not found my thing to love. That is a big point if you know enough to realize what I mean. It makes my destruction inevitable, you see.

Or this advice to the town’s aspiring writer:

You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.

It is a relatable and very human book. Throughout the stories the characters feel trapped by the dullness of their small town life and their dislike or lack of connectedness with the people around them. They want to go on adventures. They have deep desires and feelings that they cannot articulate. And they drive themselves mad with their inability to be bigger, to achieve their desires, to express themselves, and to be understood.

At the Edge of the Orchard book coverNovel: At the Edge of the Orchard
Author: Tracy Chevalier, attended Oberlin College in Ohio
Setting: 1838 Black Swamp in northern Ohio

During the land rush of the westward expansion of the US, the Goodenough family went west from Connecticut with a pocket full of apple seeds to claim a plot of land. The stopped moving west when they got stuck in the mire of the Black Swamp in northern Ohio. Wresting a living from the muck was a hard life: they lost six of eleven children to swamp fever during their time there.

With each grave he’d had to clear maples and ash to make space to dig. He’d learned to do this in July, before anyone died, so that the body did not have to wait for him to wrestle with the trees’ extensive roots. Best to get the wrestling out of the way when he had the time.

This is no Little House on the Prairie. There’s an ugliness to the harshness of the Goodenoughs’ lives. But there’s also a beauty, especially in the mens’ love for the trees — their apple orchard in Ohio, and later the redwoods and Sequoia of California.

The Goodenough orchard was not spectacular, but it was proof to James that he could tame one small patch of land, make the trees do what he wanted. Beyond them, wilderness waited in the tangled undergrowth and sudden bogs.

The reverence for the trees, and the descriptions of them, were what I enjoyed most about this book. I could see their blushing fruit, smell their blossoms, and hear their leaves rustle in the wind, and the author made me want to touch the bark and taste the apples.

Everything I never told you book coverNovel: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng, grew up in Shaker Heights, OH
Setting: 1970s Ohio

Shocking in its descriptions of prejudice, Everything I Never Told You is about a mixed race family in 1977 in a small Ohio town. The husband and children are the only Asian people in town (“Oriental” in the book), and everyone else makes a point of showing them they will never fit in.

But the book isn’t just about that. When the book opens with the death of their daughter, Lydia, the mixed race part of their story is more of a backdrop — believable, layered, and chewable context —  for what I think was the author’s real interest in crafting this novel. This book is about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that frame our experience of the people and the world around us. When Lydia is found dead at the bottom of the lake, whether murder, suicide, or accident, nobody knows, everyone goes deeper into their own stories as they try to make sense of what happened.

These are the stories the characters see as their truth, and therefore believe as the only truth, like that James is sure his white wife can no longer cope with their differences, that she regrets marrying him because he’s Chinese and that’s made life harder for all of them. The fact that he is Chinese doesn’t enter the story she tells herself at all; her story is about giving up her dreams to become a doctor, and that sacrifice is what she can’t cope with.

The characters don’t tell these stories because they’re their deepest pains, and it is hard to voice them. They don’t tell these stories because they don’t experience them as words they can articulate, or that need to be told: they just experience them as their truth. These stories are so obvious to them, the take it for granted that everyone else sees the situation the same way.

The stories they told themselves, and that they didn’t tell each other, were often wrong. And telling themselves the wrong stories without sharing with anyone had devastating consequences.

Andrea Reads America: North Dakota

Andrea Reads America map of books set in North Dakota
Andrea Reads America: North Dakota

As I thought I would, I loved North Dakota reading. The people are quiet, solid, and deep. The winters are harsh, and the light is golden on the prairie. I love prairies, and I love reading about winter, and North Dakota has both in spades.

The Round House book coverNovel: The Round House
Author: Louise Erdrich, raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota
Setting: 1988 on an unnamed North Dakota reservation

Part coming-of-age, part rape mystery, and most interestingly, part study of tribal jurisdiction, The Round House is a masterful blending of the devastation and destruction sexual assault has on the victim and her family, the intricacies of law that prohibit justice from being done, and the innocence of a 13-year-old boy who cannot stand by as his mother’s attacker goes free.

Erdrich has written a beautiful novel that is about all of these things. It is a rich, full story that is multi-layered to pull the reader in and keep you engaged. At its core it radiates two important messages: the rape of Native women by non-Native men continues to be a massive problem and “the tangle of laws that hinder prosecution of rape cases on many reservations still exists.”

They’d built [the Round House] to keep their people together and to ask for mercy from the Creator, since justice was so sketchily applied on earth.

In The Round House, Joe learns from his dad the details of the case. His father is a tribal judge. The intricacies of the law, of where the crime occurred, and therefore whose jurisdiction it would be, ultimately sets the perpetrator free. And as so often happens with men in fiction, the young son takes matters into his own hands when he sees the law and justice system will fail to bring the attacker to account for his crime.

Prairie Silence book coverBook: Prairie Silence: A Memoir
Author: Melanie Hoffert, raised on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota
Setting: Wyndmere and the Hofferts’ farm, North Dakota

Growing up gay in a land where nobody talks about feelings, nobody was (publicly) gay, and where everyone is Christian is… hard. Prairie Silence is Melanie Hoffert’s memoir of being pulled to the land of North Dakota, back to her childhood farm, the golden prairie, and the solid people of her home to finally break her own silence. She describes the landscape in the exact ways I love to read.

The flat land is not dry, not dark, not lifeless. Instead, North Dakota is a painter’s palette where all of the earthly colors settle. The light changes minute by minute, following unassuming subjects: a wheat field, a gravel road, a gray grain elevator.

Hoffert’s book is a tender account of her struggle to reconcile her love for women with her love for God, who her Bible camp co-counselers assure her hates homosexuals.

The God I talked to as a child, the God my mom relied on to soothe my pains, the God Jessica and I had championed as teenagers was not my God, but the God of the people I met at camp. And those people introduced me to judgments about the world I couldn’t accept. The most painful judgment was about the way I could love another person.

I really loved this book, and especially Melanie’s descriptions of her gayness: it’s not about sex but about the pure connection with, understanding of, and love for another person. This whole book radiates love. It is a love letter to her home of North Dakota. Through her writing it is clear how warm her heart is for the land, the people, and the God of her childhood.

Peace Like a River book coverNovel: Peace Like a River
Author: Leif Enger, lives in Minnesota near the ND border
Setting: Minnesota and the badlands of North Dakota

Set in 1962-1963 Minnesota and the badlands of North Dakota, Peace Like a River is a beautifully told tale of a family — our narrator Reuben, his sister Swede, and their father Jeremiah Land — who take to the badlands of North Dakota in an Airstream camper in winter to find their outlaw brother and son, Davy. Like Joe in The Round House, the teenaged Davy takes matters into his own hands when he sees attackers going unpunished.

And then he is on the run on horseback, just like the heroes of the Western novels young Swede is constantly devouring.

The title is perfect for this narrative, for despite the harsh conditions of the characters, I felt a peace reading it. There is light in this book, a wholesome goodness, especially through the humble and remarkable father, Jeremiah Land, who has a deep relationship with God, and who sometimes very quietly performs miracles. I also adore Reuben’s sister, 8 year-old Swede, who is a young writer who sits her saddle on a sawhorse in the Airstream and types rhyming verse of her hero Sunny Sundown as they hurtle down the highways of North Dakota searching for Davy.

And finally, I loved the scenery. Enger, a native of the Minnesota/North Dakota border area, writes the land, the grain, the sky, the wind, and of course, the snow, beautifully. The setting is another character in the book, and a strong one.