Horse Back
Photo by notashamed used under a Creative Commons license.

Charles Portis, True Grit (Overlook, 2007).
Mattie Ross is only fourteen years old, but when a hired hand named Tom Chaney kills her father near Fort Smith, Arkansas, she sets out on his trial.  In Fort Smith, Ross hears that Chaney has joined up with a band of outlaws in the Indian Territory, the Oklahoma of yesteryear, and she finds help of her own in Rooster Cogburn, a federal marshal, and a Texas Ranger named Le Bouef.  They head west, each with their own agenda.  It wouldn’t be right to say more of the plot, but the way that Portis narrates the tale in Mattie’s voice should not be missed.  Perhaps this book is overlooked because John Wayne played Cogburn in the movie?

The novel’s Wikipedia page is relatively lengthy and thoughtful. NPR offers an excerpt. Vered Kleinberger put together this page on Portis. Alex T. Moore’s unofficial Portis site has all sorts of content. Ed Park’s piece on Portis for The Believer is a must-read. Orrin calls it one of the funniest, most under appreciated novels in all of American literature; he also collects worthwhile Portis links. Mark Garvey says it feels archetypal, and so well done that it seems to have been written much nearer to the era it portrays (1873) than to our own time. Brian Garfield (Saturday Review) calls it a straightforward tale with endless nuances. Richard Rhodes (The New York Times) calls it skillfully constructed, a comic tour de force. Charles Taylor (Newsday) says it flirts with myth and tall tale, but reading it is like encountering a voice speaking to us directly from America’s past. Cassandra Cleghorn (Tin House) hears Mark Twain in it. Allen Barra (Salon) celebrated when it was put back into print. Rocky Barker says it transcends genre fiction. Steve Zipp calls it an anti-western. Resolute Reader says it has all of the excitement of the movie. Eileen Contreras calls it a great adventure tale. Shane enjoyed it less than he thought he would. Benjamin Potter calls it a real shoot ‘em up.  Donna Tartt believes it’s a masterpiece. Maggie identifies with Mattie. Julie has the movie trailer. Bec says if you don’t like it there’s something wrong with you. Andy calls it pleasantly conciseVariety says the Coen brothers will make it into another movie. Roy Reed interviewed Portis in 2001. Chris Lehman talked about Portis and the novel with George Pelecanos in 2006. Here is the first edition’s cover. And Scott McLemee reports from the Charles Portis Appreciation Society.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Route 66
Photo by Swiv used under a Creative Commons license.

Dan Morgan, Rising in the West (Knopf, 1992).
Subtitled “The True History of an ‘Okie’ Family from the Great Depression Through the Reagan Years,” this is a history of the family of Oca Tatham and his family, who fled Oklahoma in August, 1934, in search of a better future in California.   The Tathams are Pentecostal Christians, a faith that ties together the Oklahoma of the 193os and the California of the Reagan Revolution.

Morgan was a reporter for the Washington Post for four decades or so. Here’s a page at washingtonpost.com that will link to recent work there by Morgan; it also has a brief bio. Here’s another short bio. R. Stephen Warner (Christian Century) says it’s rich in social and religious history. This piece by William M. Hagen for the Oklahoma Historical Society recommends the book. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz doesn’t like Morgan’s style, but appreciates his departure from some of the myths about Okies. Tom Snyder recommends it to travelers on Route 66. The book introduced Jane M. Smith to homeschooling.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Storm @ Sonic
Photo by Lludo used under a Creative Commons license.

Stewart O’Nan, The Speed Queen (Ballantine Books, 1998).
The narrator of O’Nan’s novel is Marjorie Standiford, an Oklahoma girl gone bad, and she tells her tale in the last evening before her scheduled execution, recording her answers to 114 questions put to her by Stephen King,* whose payment is one of the final things she can leave her son.  The other is this story.  Knowing how she ends up, one searches Standiford’s life on the margins of Oklahoma City — working at a Conoco station, marrying a mechanic named Lamont, living in a run-down apartment complex, even an ill-fated love triangle born in prison — for the reasons that it erupts in the murder spree that leads to Death Row. But her path is banal rather than foreboding. Even when her explanations are done, her tale remains largely inexplicable.  Standiford is fueled by pot and vodka, “downs” and speed, but so are many people who aren’t murderers.  In other words, O’Nan does a better job painting the gas stations and drive-ins of Oklahoma than the psychology of a murderer (though who am I to say?).

* O’Nan originally titled the book, Dear Stephen King, but apparently lawyers forced a change.  A few years later, O’Nan and King wrote a book together about the 2004 Red Sox.  More about that here.  I also infer that in later editions of the book, O’Nan was forced to change the name of a fast-food restaurant where killings occur.

Here is Google Book Search, with an excerpt and links to reviews.  Here is O’Nan’s site, and here is a bio.  Here are reviews from George Stade (The New York Times), Megan Harlan (Entertainment Weekly), Orrin Judd, 2Things@Once, Andrew Wheeler, beebarf, Vicky, and mardhiah hamid. The novel was a finalist for the 1998 Oklahoma Book Award in the Fiction category. Ron Hogan interviewed O’Nan about the book. Here are links to a podcast of a reading by O’Nan and a Q&A at Colgate. Anne Stockton adapted the novel into a play.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Storms, Osage County, Oklahoma
Photo of Osage County, Okla., by Wade From Oklahoma used under a Creative Commons license.

Richard Rhodes, The Inland Ground (University Press of Kansas, 1991).
A collection of essays generally grounded in Missouri and Kansas. There are pieces here, among others, about: Jesse Howard, the signpainter of Fulton, Mo.; riding a diesel freight train to Gridley, Kan.; Independence, Mo.; the Unity School of Practical Christianity in Lee’s Summit, Mo.; coyote hunting in Portis, Kan.; Kansas City (“Cupcake Land”); a 6,000-acre wheat farm in Beloit, Kan.; Dwight Eisenhower; the I-D Packing Company of Des Moines; the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.; the annual dances of the Osage Indians in Pawhuska, Grayhorse, and Hominy, Okla., with a detour to the Phillips collection in Woolaroc; and the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City. Rhodes substantially revised this book for the 1991 edition, which is the one that I read, and probably the one that you’ll find.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Rhodes. Here is Rhodes’ website. And here is more about Jesse Howard.

Buy it at Amazon.com.