Oklahoma: A Reading List

A stunning lightning bolt at sunset under a severe thunderstorm with a dirt road vanishing into the distance, taken near Magnum, Oklahoma, Tornado Alley, USA. Getty Images

A few nights ago I filled my bathtub with blankets and every pillow in my house, set a lantern and four bottles of water beside me, and took shelter. On my laptop, I watched the local news, where weathermen urged drivers to clear the roads and pointed at cloud rotations. The skies, through the screen, looked like oceans inverted: clouds rolled like tidal waves at too fast a pace and swirled like aerial eddies. Usually I love the openness of Oklahoma, the way a sunrise here can tinge the world any number of sherbet hues, but that night, from my tub, the heavens only looked ominous.

For an hour I watched the color-coded markings on the map, scanning for my small city, and only went to bed after the red and green splotched signs of danger had passed north, to Kansas. Even then, I didn’t sleep. I listened to the hail and rain pound my roof. I worried for people, animals, and houses in the storm’s path. I wondered if there would be an undetected storm moving toward me in the night, a tornado that might whip through the cover of dark as one had when I was in college, hitting my home when none of us were inside.

The morning after the storm, robins emerged from hiding and hopped across my yard with spiky hair and tussled feathers. Rain drained across the red clay in rivulets. Gray skies cleared into sun, and a soft summer breeze rustled honeysuckle, stirring the scent. This is Oklahoma in spring: mercurial, dangerous, beautiful. Here, I feel closer to the elements than I ever have before. Watching a bird prey upon a baby snake from my kitchen window, tearing the red inner meat into shreds, or witnessing the sky meld from blue to the shade of a bruise in moments, I have grown attuned to the thin line between awe and fear.

I am leaving this state very soon, and it’s filled me with the kind of ache for understanding that so often accompanies a goodbye, a sense that I can never know quite enough. Though I’ve explored great swaths of the state; learned the habits of starlings that murmur at daybreak and dusk; taught students from a variety of different towns; listened to Dear Oklahoma, a podcast where writers ruminate and examine the way in which Oklahoma is a part of their work; and tried my best to understand the histories of this place, this state still escapes my description. As a way of getting outside my own experience, I have turned to the words of others. I don’t think there’s any way to capture the vastness of this place — and this is by no means a comprehensive list — but below is a collection of stories that offer a glimpse.

1. Pawhuska or Bust: A Journey to the Heart of Pioneer Woman Country (Khushbu Shah, October 5, 2017, Thrillist)

With only oil and cattle to rely on as industries, rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma was at risk of becoming a ghost town until Ree Drummond stepped in. Also known as “The Pioneer Woman,” Drummond is a Food Network Star known for her marriage to a cattle-rancher and what fans describe as her “real” food. After Drummond opens a restaurant called “The Mercantile” in Pawhuska, Khushbu Shah flies from New York to better understand Drummond’s influence on Oklahoma’s cultural scene and economy, and why so many visitors flock to a restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Similar sentiments were later echoed by every Pioneer Woman fan I spoke to, the vast majority of whom were white and from the Midwest or the South, like the three tall and husky female friends who told me they’d driven 13 hours from Indiana because Drummond makes ‘real American food’ and ‘the stuff you actually want to eat.’

2. They thought they were going to rehab. They ended up in chicken plants. (Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter, October 4, 2017, Reveal)

Given the option between prison and a rehab program called CAAIR (nicknamed “the Chicken Farm”), Brad McGahey chose the latter. Amy Julia Harris and Shoshana Walter, in this harrowing piece of investigative journalism, reveal that CAAIR, located in northeastern Oklahoma, relies on unpaid labor from thousands of defendants. Additionally, though marketed as a rehab program, participants receive very little medical care or treatment.

‘They came up with a hell of an idea,’ said Parker Grindstaff, who graduated earlier this year. ‘They’re making a killing off of us.’

3. A Bend in the River (Pamela Colloff, July 2002, Texas Monthly)

Newspaper accounts of the escape focused on the manhunt, paying scant attention to the original crime or the victim, invariably described as a ‘sixteen-year-old Waurika, Okla., cheerleader.’ Only along the river did people know what the crime had done to their isolated slice of the world, the illusions it had cruelly stripped away.

In this riveting, haunting longform piece, Pamela Colloff writes about the murder of Heather Rich, and the impact her death had on the community of Waurika, Oklahoma, as well as the ways in which place and landscape influenced the investigation and subsequent events.

4. Why Black People Own Guns (Julia Craven, December 26, 2017, Huffpost)

Julia Craven interviewed 11 black gun owners in order to better understand their relationships to firearms. Though each of these accounts are important in their own right, RJ Young speaks specifically about his experiences with gun ownership as a black man in Oklahoma.

If I could walk around Oklahoma and not count how many black folks were in the room, I’d probably feel better about firearms as a black man. I’d probably feel safer walking around with one. But the fact is, most people have a narrow view of who I am.

Young’s book, Let It Bang: A Young Black Man’s Reluctant Odyssey into Guns offers more thorough insight his personal experiences with guns in Oklahoma within the context of a well-researched, larger cultural framework.

5. Spiritual Affliction: A Thank You Note to Oklahoma (Kate Strum, October 1, 2018, Hippocampus)

After moving to Oklahoma for graduate school, Kate Strum becomes fervent to understand the landscape: she travels to various parts of the state, engages politically, experiences the severity of elements, and makes meaningful relationships with people who have been here longer than she. And still, Oklahoma is somewhat elusive, though this essay is a beautiful rumination on Strum’s time spent here.

I am at once furious about what is wrong here and losing patience with the opinions of outsiders. I am home. I am marching at the capitol in the morning and late night on social media I am telling my friends on the coasts that they don’t get it. I shake my head when they read articles about rural America and think they know us.

6. Grace in Broken Arrow (Kiera Feldman, May 23, 2012, This Land)

Rather than taking reports of child molestation to the police or the Department of Human Services, the leaders of Grace Church, a Christian school that featured amenities like a ball pit, soda shoppe, and an antique carousel, instead held meetings to address what they didn’t believe to be that serious of an issue. Kiera Feldman, by interviewing survivors, former employees, and conducting immense amounts of research, brings to light a sickening tale of how Aaron Thompson, a former PE teacher at the school, molested boys there for years.

Grace Church was Oklahoma’s Penn State of 2002. After such things come to light, we always wonder: how on earth did that ever happen?

Here is how it happened.

7. Landlocked Islanders (Krista Langlois, November 16, 2016, Hakai Magazine)

Marshallese citizens, granted indefinite permission to live and work in the U.S. as a result of an agreement made with the U.S. during Marshallese independence, are leaving the Marshall Islands due to factors like climate change and lack of opportunities. As Krista Langlois writes, “by the year 2100, it’s conceivable that climate change will force the entire population of the Marshall Islands to US shores.” Many Marshallese migrants are ending up in Enid, Oklahoma.

Though Enid seems like an improbable place for Pacific Islanders to settle, it is, in a way, familiar. The first Marshallese came here with missionaries about 40 years ago, and wrote home about the jobs that could be had in meat-processing factories, and the public schools their children could attend. Eventually, family joined family.

8. The Teachers’ Strike and the Democratic Revival in Oklahoma (Rivka Galchen, May 28, 2018, The New Yorker)

Oklahoma teachers, rightfully tired of working multiple jobs to provide for their families and paying large sums of money for their own school supplies, walked out of school in April 2018. Some teachers drove to the capitol, where they asked for pay raises and better funding for their schools. Others walked in protest, making their way through “snow, lightning, and an earthquake.” Rivka Galchen examines the unique political composition of Oklahoma and chronicles the events of the two-week teachers’ walkout in Oklahoma in this longform piece.

The state’s license plates once read “Native America,” though almost no tribes are native to the area; they were sent there in the Trail of Tears. And Oklahomans are proud to be called Okies, a term coined by Californians to disparage people who were fleeing the Dust Bowl.

Related read: How Oklahoma’s Low Pay Dashed My Hopes of Teaching in My Tribal Community, March 28, 2018, Education Week

***

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.