The Roundup

15 Essential Oklahoma Reads

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Posted 07.02.13

We asked our Facebook friends—and our real-life friends—what they consider Oklahoma required reading.

We paired those suggestions with our own favorite titles to form a list that, while far from complete, offers a jumping-off point for anyone looking for stories in which our state stars.

We’d love to hear from you: Which books would you add to this list? Which would you leave off?

A Tour on the Prairies by Washington Irving

1. A Tour on the Prairies by Washington Irving

In 1832, Irving (he wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) set out on a tour of Indian Territory, romantically retelling the danger and adventures he encountered, providing a narrative history lesson for readers today. “Irving’s journaling style is personable, affable and immensely readable,” Pamela Thompson told us in making her recommendation. “As far as travel journals go, this set the bar.” You can read a detailed account of Irving’s journey in this archived Chronicles of Oklahoma article.

Prairie City- The Story of an American Community by Angie Debo

2. Prairie City: The Story of an American Community by Angie Debo

Prairie City is a fictional account of the making of an Oklahoma city. Based on historical research, Debo’s Prairie City is a composite of several small Oklahoma towns and tells the story of early life in Oklahoma, from settlement during the land runs to the arrival of the railroad and the KKK. Debo also shines a spotlight on the impact of politics, the Depression, and war.

Also by Angie Debo: Oklahoma: Foot-Loose and Fancy-Free, And Still the Waters Run, and A History of the Indians of the United States.

Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie

3. Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie

Guthrie’s fictionalized autobiography chronicles his childhood, his travels across the U.S. as a hobo folk singer, and his eventual rise to recognition. The book is one of Guthrie’s first published writings, originally printed in 1943. Also check out House of Earth, Guthrie’s novel finished in 1947, which was lost, then found, then edited by Johnny Depp and historian Douglas Brinkley. It was published this year.

The Worst Hard Time

4. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

Most Dust Bowl stories follow the trail Oklahomans took to California to escape the constant dirt blizzards. Egan’s book, however, chronicles the plight of those who stayed, who struggled and endured, and who tried to rebuild. The New York Times called it “inherently dramatic” and “thrilling.”

An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before, edited by Davis D. Joyce

5. An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before, edited by Davis D. Joyce

In a series of essays, Joyce offers insight into Oklahoma’s radical and populist history, which is often overshadowed by its current conservative tendencies. The book’s title is based on a comment made by a student at the end of a semester spent in one of Joyce’s classes, and it begins: “I love Oklahoma. I love its land, its people. I love its history. But, just as I always thought the bumper sticker slogan ‘America: Love It or Leave It’ was silly, narrow-minded, and inappropriate—I always like ‘America: Change It or Lose It’ better—I react negatively to those who react predictably negatively to every criticism of Oklahoma. Love it or leave it? No. Some of us love it enough to stay and try to change it—America and Oklahoma.” Also check out the companion title, Alternative Oklahoma.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

6. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The quintessential Tulsa book, Hinton’s young-adult novel, set in the 1960s, is a coming-of-age tale set against a familiar background of class warfare. Rumble Fish and Tex are Hinton’s other cult classics.

Red Dirt- Growing Up Okie by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

7. Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz goes back to her roots as a “Dust Bowl baby,” growing up poor in rural Oklahoma in the 1940s and ‘50s. The Village Voice called it “at once sweetly nostalgic and inexorably grim, a true study of light and dark,” the Los Angeles Times wrote that “Dunbar-Ortiz’s most important achievement is to put class back on the rural map where it belongs.”

Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation by Michael Wallis

8. Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation by Michael Wallis

Michael Wallis offers a collection of essays about the Oklahoma of yore and the characters—well-known and not—who once inhabited it. Those 16 stories amount to his “favorite spoonfuls of Oklahoma.”

Fire in Beulah by Rilla Askew

9. Fire in Beulah by Rilla Askew

Using the true events of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot as a backdrop, Rilla Askew tells the story of a well-to-do white woman and her black maid, who discover the surname they share is more than a coincidence. Also by Askew: Harpsong, The Mercy Seat, and Strange Business.

10. Oklahoma Politics: A History by James R. Scales and Danney Goble

Recommended to us by Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry, Oklahoma Politics is difficult to find but the essential guide to the history of politics in the Sooner State. Written by two of the state’s best political historians, the book provides context that helps us understand why Oklahoma became one of the reddest states in the nation.

West of Hell's Fringe- Crime, Criminals, and the Federal Peace Officer in Oklahoma Territory, 1889-1907 by Glenn Shirley

11. West of Hell’s Fringe: Crime, Criminals, and the Federal Peace Officer in Oklahoma Territory, 1889-1907 by Glenn Shirley

When Oklahomans retell the story of the land run that settled the state, they sometimes leave out the fact that outlaws came before and with the settlers seeking to claim their own slice of land. Glenn Shirley revels in it, offering an essential account of crime in early Oklahoma, when outlaws toed the line between Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory, a place known as Hell’s Fringe.

August- Osage County by Tracy Letts

12. August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and soon to be released as a major motion picture, August: Osage County is a play that’s a delight to read as much as it is to see on the screen. Letts, in telling the story of a dysfunctional family reunited to bury its patriarch, captures a rural Oklahoma that natives can easily relate to—especially when the August heat sets in.

Voices From the Heartland

13. Voices From the Heartland, edited by Carolyn Anne Taylor, Emily Dial-Driver, Carole Burrage, and Sally Emmons-Featherston

This anthology offers stories by and about Oklahoma women—some well-known, some not; some light-hearted, some heavy. They celebrate women’s contributions to the state and share their wisdom for future generations.

Oklahoma Tough- My Father King of the Tulsa Bootleggers

14. Oklahoma Tough: My Father King of the Tulsa Bootleggers by Ron Padgett

Ron Padgett writes about his father an elusive career criminal who counted cops, preachers, and elected officials among his many customers. In addition to a moving biography, Padgett provides insight into the politics and culture of Tulsa in the 1960s and ‘70s that made bootlegging such a lucrative trade.

Jubilee City- A Memoir at Full Speed

15. Jubilee City: A Memoir at Full Speed by Joe Andoe

Artist Joe Andoe paints portraits of a life begun in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he discovered art, alcohol and drugs—the former which took him to New York, where he found success and family.