I just finished the non-fiction book Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis. WAIT — Have I already lost you? Are you thinking this book isn’t for you? Hang on, please, and let me convince you why you need to read this book. I think I know the reasons you think this book is not for you.
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Reason #1 that you might pass on this book: it is non-fiction.
I get it; non-fiction books rarely catch my eye either. I paid my dues in college and law school, reading about non-fiction subjects like groundwater contamination and insurance contracts. Now that I can read for pleasure, I like a rousing plot and compelling character development. Make me laugh; make me cry; make me stay up all night to finish it. If I’m going to pick up non-fiction, it’s got to be very interesting, well-written, and not have a lot of blah blah blah. Boom Town is all that, plus exciting, moving, thought-provoking, and touching.
Reason #2 that you might pass on this book: it is about the history of Oklahoma City.
The history of Oklahoma City? Seriously? “Yawn.” The author, Sam Anderson, knows what you’re thinking, and addresses it right off the bat:
This book is a history of Oklahoma City. That may strike you as unnecessary, or unfortunate. If so, I would understand. In the larger economy of American attention, Oklahoma City’s main job has always been to be ignored. When non-Oklahomans need to think about the place, we tend to fall back on cliches: tepees, wagon trains, the Dust Bowl, country music, college football, methamphetamine, radical anti-government politics. There is always, of course the Broadway musical Oklahoma!, with its soaring anthems of Manifest Destiny. Every five or ten or twenty years, the world is forced to pay serious attention to Oklahoma because something terrible has happened there: a tornado or a bombing or an economic collapse. But then we go back to ignoring it. This is natural. We can’t pay attention to everything. You have to know how to look past a place. And Oklahoma City, in the grand scheme of things, is a very easy place to look past.
Reason #3 that you might pass on this book: it is about professional basketball.
I hear you. I am not a fan of professional basketball. I don’t mean that I hate it; I just have no interest in it. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a game. I probably couldn’t name three teams before I read this book. Pro basketball is simply not on my radar, with the exception of being concerned that former player Dennis Rodman may land our country in some sort of World War, or perhaps save us from a World War — no one knows for sure. In any event, I have no passion for professional basketball.
But I became engaged and invested in the story of the Thunder. We hear of the dream of having a team, and the hiring, trading and loss of various players. We learn of the personalities, work ethics, skills and eccentricities of various players. We follow the story of a hunt for a basketball championship. I became immersed in the story of a scrappy team, in a scrappier community. Even for a gal with no interest in pro basketball, the story of the Thunder is exciting and interesting, and would be worth reading as a stand-alone.
But this book is so much more.
It is the story of the Land Run, including Boomers and Sooners. We see a state founded — at the crack of a gun — by crazy prospectors, outlaws, scholars, and down-on-their-luck folks taking a last chance.
It is the story of the fight for civil rights. Young African Americans, lead by a calm but passionate young woman, engaged in lunch counter sit-ins, day after day after day. They endured insults, humiliation, and threat of physical harm, all while following Dr. King’s principles of non-violent resistance. Their leader, Clara Luper, was arrested 26 times, and is responsible for the desegregation of restaurants, theaters, hotels and churches in Oklahoma City.
It is the story of sonic booms. The city government of Oklahoma City willingly allowed its citizens to become guinea pigs for the testing of the effects of sonic booms, subjecting the city to multiple earth-shaking booms every day, in return for a promise that the city would become a hub for international flights. (It didn’t.).
It is the story violent, deadly, other-worldly weather: baseball-sized hail, incredible wind and devastating tornadoes, including those that leveled the City of Moore, hitting two elementary schools (with children in them) and killing 24 and injuring 212. That day more than 70 tornadoes hit the area and caused over $1 billion in damage.
And it is the story of the deadliest domestic terror attack in the United States. I cried as I read about Timothy McVeigh’s car bomb that took out the Murrah Federal Building and most of downtown Oklahoma City, destroying or damaging 325 building in a 16-block radius, including the daycare center across the street. The bomb killed 168 souls, 19 of whom were children, and injured almost 700. I learned of the incredible power of that bomb, and how nine stores of the building collapsed upon itself. The blast was felt 30 miles away.
It is the story of the compassion and kindness of Oklahomans in the face of challenges — multiple, seemingly unending challenges. It is the story of hard work, tenacity, and hope for the boom.
Whether you live in Oklahoma, have visited Oklahoma, or have never set foot there and don’t plan to, I heartily recommend Boom Town. The author of Boom Town had never been to Oklahoma until 2012, when he was sent there on assignment to write about the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team. After his time there, he proposes that Oklahoma City is the “great minor city of America.” I suspected as much before I read this book, but now I am in firm agreement.
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