Book Review: BOOM TOWN, engaging portrait of Oklahoma’s capital city, her chaotic history, crazy weather, and revered basketball team

Anderson, Boom Town (2)I love reading about my home state, and Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Being a World-Class Metropolis by Sam Anderson came with high expectations and strong recommendations. I wasn’t disappointed. Boom Town recounts the history of Oklahoma City from its founding with the Land Run of 1889 (as well as the illicit incursions of the Boomers some time before). On that day, people were so eager to stake their claims they forgot that cities needed things like roads and open spaces. Yet, out of this chaos came a growing frontier city that wrested the status of capital from its neighbor, Guthrie, to the north.

Oklahoma City’s chaos was tamed by the arrival of Stanley Draper who became a powerful figure as head of the Chamber of Commerce and wielded more influence than the city government. Under his guidance, the historic and unique buildings of downtown were demolished in the name of urban renewal, and the city annexed more surrounding land than it would ever need. He negotiated for the air force to conduct Operation Bongo, a six month test of resident response to sonic booms. When residents complained and wanted the experiment to stop, convincing the city council to take action, Draper stepped in and kept them from shutting down Bongo because it was for the good of the city. (It was not.)

Anderson also honestly delves into a dark corner of Oklahoma City’s past: it’s history of racism and segregation, but also profiles the hero Clara Luper, who led teenagers in sit-ins in downtown Oklahoma City over six years until all the diners were desegregated, though she was arrested twenty-six times in the process. Later, she supported sanitation workers during a garbage strike and helped them reach a favorable settlement with the city government.

I learned so much from Anderson’s historic account, and I can’t believe that this wasn’t taught in my Oklahoma History class, but on the other hand, I could have forgotten some details. Even more likely, our Oklahoma History class would not have highlighted critical information, preferring to glorify the early settlers.

Growing up, I went to Oklahoma City for special events, field trips, shopping, concerts, and to visit relatives. As an adult, I spent five years living in and around Oklahoma City (before the Thunder), and I would eat at Bricktown, go to games at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark to see the Oklahoma City Dodgers. For a time, I worked at a government building across from the capital. Anderson describes the tragic tornado of May 3, 1999, and I remember that I was on a business trip, coming home that day. My flight arrived in Oklahoma City after the tornado had come and gone, and I remember everyone shell shocked from the damage. So, the book was also a little nostalgic for me, and at times, painful, especially when Anderson recounted the Murrah Building bombing in 1995.

Among the history of the city, Anderson weaves vignettes of Wayne Coyne, the Oklahoma native and famous frontman of the Flaming Lips rock band who is also famous for staying in Oklahoma City. Some readers might be even more interested in Anderson’s replay of how the Thunder arrived in Oklahoma City and their 2012-2013 season, the season they were supposed to win the championship, the first season after GM Presti traded James Harden to Houston. Without Harden, two stars remained, Kevin Durant and Russell Holbrook, and how they could work together without the stabilizing force of Harden could settle the fate of the season. While I like the Thunder as my home state team, I’m not all that interested in sports. Anderson, though, made the chapters about the Thunder so interesting, combining details about the plays, the stars, and the organization behind them.

One of the most impressive things about Boom Town is how deftly Anderson shifts styles from this expert sports writing to weather reporting, historical documentation, the trippy character profile of Coyne, and a surreal chapter in which he retraces the fourteen mile route of the Land Run on foot. No matter what voice he’s using, Anderson is engaging and often witty.

Boom Town is told basically in alternating chapters, from history to the Thunder, with epilogues that bring the book to the current time (earthquakes! more Russell Holbrook! fewer Thunder wins!). Although this might be the best way to structure the book, it did make for a bit of a choppy reading experience since the transitions weren’t always smooth or natural. And while there was some discussion of Native Americans and how the government stole Oklahoma from them, land they’d been given in exchange for land the government stole from them in the South and Southeast, I would have liked to see more about the intersection of Native American culture and the city. Finally, while Anderson provides a section on his main sources for the book, I’m still curious about his secondary sources and how he got access to the people he interviewed for the book.

As much as I liked Boom Town, it depressed me a bit. Thunder or not Thunder, Oklahoma City has made significant mistakes with annexation and urban renewal, and under the current ultra conservative city and state government, those mistakes continue. I suppose the hope is that now, more people are knowledgeable, active, and have an alternative, hopeful, inclusive vision of the city.

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BOOK REVIEW: Where the Dead Sit Talking, an intense and disturbing account of the relationship between Sequoyah and his foster sister

Hobson, Brandon - Where the Dead Sit Talking w AmeliaWhere the Dead Sit Talking
Brandon Hobson

Fifteen-year-old Sequoyah, half Cherokee, scarred from hot grease his mother flung when she ostensibly didn’t realize he was in the kitchen, has been in the foster care system since his mother was arrested with possession with intent to distribute. His tireless social worker has seen him through a placement with a family that didn’t work out and a stint at a group home where he was able to sneak out and roam the streets. She finally thought she found the perfect match with the Troutts, an older couple living in rural Little Crow, Oklahoma.

The Troutt family includes Howard, a bookie, Agnes, who we don’t learn much about, and their current foster children, George, about thirteen and likely autistic, and Rosemary, seventeen, a Kiowa Indian who is planning to go to art school on east coast. Sequoyah feels more comfortable at the Troutt home than he did in previous placements, though he bemoans the loss of freedom. He becomes particularly attached to Rosemary, feeling they are connected, like twins, or even the same person at times and able to communicate telepathically, and obeys her directives whatever she asks, though internally, he has violent thoughts about her.

No narrator has scared me like Sequoyah in a very long time. The sentences are simple with little variation in structure, a deliberate choice that bleaches the emotions out of Sequoyah’s delivery and makes his fantasies of violence and, at times, descriptions of actual violence, even more harrowing. Sequoyah frequently begins his statements with I saw…, I watched…, I remembered which also places him in a position of observer and further distances him from the emotions associated with the events in the novel.

One latent emotion is present–rage–and perhaps Sequoyah’s rage is justified. Not only is he judged for the scars on his face and torso, not only has he been abandoned by his mother, he watched a series of boyfriends abuse her and was possibly abused himself. He struggles with identity, his Indian identity, but also his gender identity. He wears eyeliner, a bold choice in rural Oklahoma for young men even today, but in the late 1980s completely radical. His desire to become Rosemary speaks to his desire to shed his masculine skin.

Sequoyah’s navigation of the foster care system and his sense that no place for him is really home reflects the displacement and forced removal of Native Americans in the United States. He carefully observes the markers of home: portraits and paintings on the walls, books on shelves, pictures in frames, with the sense that that type of belonging and way to inhabit space is barred from him. (Interestingly, by the end of the novel, he spends most of his time in a teepee that Howard helped him construct.)

The presence of birds–hawks, geese, blackbirds, cardinals, and generic birds–looms large in the text, at times, serving as a symbol of freedom or protection, other times appearing as potential threats. Most frequently, though, they seem to be completely indifferent to whatever events Sequoyah is describing and highlight the sense that he is alone and rudderless.

Sequoyah and Rosemary often relate their dreams, with Rosemary especially aware of the preternatural meaning they hold, as warnings but as sources of hope as well. More than once, Sequoyah dreams about his father coming back to life and returning to him covered with dirt and debris from his grave. (As far as the reader knows, his father is in Mexico.)

Although Sequoyah does have moments of empathy–he carefully considers the life of an elderly man with dementia he encountered–he is not really able to see others, especially Rosemary, as distinct individuals. A final confrontation with Rosemary arises in large part because, in crisis, she pulls away from him, and he sees that as a personal affront rather than a reflection of her current state. That might not be so unusual for a teenager, but there are brief allusions indicating that Sequoyah didn’t change after his time with the Troutts.

Where the Dead Sit Talking, a 2018 National Book Award Finalist, is undoubtedly intense and disturbing. I always love reading books set in Oklahoma, but besides frequent trips to the Sonic Drive-In, the novel didn’t really evoke a sense of place unique to the state. Additionally, there are multiple scenes with violence toward animals. To some extent, I can accept that these depictions play a role in characterization, but I also think that the characters were fully drawn as disturbed individuals without including these scenes.

To fully appreciate the novel requires a degree of attention and concentration to unpack Sequoyah’s narration. Though there were many things about it that unsettled me, I was ultimately glad I read it.

Elizabeth Warren and I Have Something in Common

No More Names Rally with Mayors Against Illegal Guns at Faneuil Hall

No More Names Rally with Mayors Against Illegal Guns at Faneuil Hall

I’ve always liked Elizabeth Warren for her tireless and passionate advocacy to protect the 99% and to critique the role of corporations in politics today. Additionally, Warren promotes the Equal Pay Act and champions the rights of those in the LGBT community.

Last night, I learned that Warren was born in Oklahoma – Norman – and graduated from Northwest Classen High School, winning the title as “Oklahoma’s Top High School Debater” when she was 16. In 2011, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

Although I would definitely support her if she ran for President, she has insisted to reporters that she’s staying in Washington for now. When interviewed by The Today Show on Wednesday about a possible bid, she replied, “I’m in Washington. I’ve got this really great job and a chance to make a difference on things that really matter.”

One issue she’s pressing right now relates to high student loan interest rates. She told Conan O’Brien, “The government should not be making profits off of kids trying to get an education.” I have a vested interest in seeing her student loan bill succeed. (If you care about that issue, visit Student Debt Crisis and sign their petitions!)

Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator for Massachusetts

Elizabeth Warren for Senate

The Tivoli

TivoliThe Tivoli was the first movie theater I ever went to. I have vague recollections of Star Wars, but certainly remember my mother taking me and Johnna Cook to The Empire Strikes Back. Unfortunately, the movie was interrupted by frequent trips to the bathroom because I lost a baby tooth during the showing. When The Fox and the Hound was released, Ryan, Jeffrey, and I were taken to the Tivoli to see it; I spent the entire movie sobbing, leading to my renunciation of movies with animal characters.

Once the big Carmike Five by the interstate opened in the early 1980s, the Tivoli struggled to find its place. Discount movies played there for a time, then it was unused for many years. In the early 2000s, the last time I was in the building, Laura and I went there for a Jack Ingram concert.

The Ardmore Main Street authority owns the building, and a 2009 article in the local paper reported that it’s renovating the building.

Ardmoreite article