2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Oklahoma, Here I Come!

Prague, Oklahoma, about 1903

Oklahoma was never on my list of places to see before I die. Which goes to show how prejudices we don't even know we have limit our view of the world. 

Jim Thorpe was born in Oklahoma in 1887 (not 1888, as most sources claim) near where this rough western town of Prague would be created about twelve years later by immigrants from Bohemia. His Sac & Fox and Potawatomi people had been "removed" (forcibly relocated) to Oklahoma after the Civil War from Kansas (to which they had been removed from Iowa, to which they had been removed from Illinois). Towns like this were laid out overnight on Indian lands that opened up for white settlement with the famous Oklahoma land runs, like the one pictured below, that began in 1889.

When I first arrived in Oklahoma City (OKC to locals) in 2002 to start research on Thorpe the city and surrounding country looked flat, dry, and plain. There didn't seem to be much for the eye to linger on. The wind blew constantly because there was nothing to stop it. 

Then I noticed the sense of humor -- flat, dry ("dusty!" laughed one Oklahoman), plain, and very funny. Will Rogers wit. The punch line came at you like a cowboy seen far away on the horizon: Wait for it. "Why is Oklahoma so windy? It's all that hot air blowing up from Texas." It's an intimate state, a  monk told me, a man so handsome he was referred to, affectionately, as "Brother What A Waste" and "Father Hunk-a-Monk." When the state finally got around, 80-some years later, to adding a dome to the capitol building, there was a constituency that argued it was more distinctive to be the only state in the union without a dome. 

Any biography worth its name should expand the sympathies and understanding of the biographer. Now I love the state I had to learn so much about in order to write NATIVE AMERICAN SON. One new friend recently dubbed me "an honorary Okie." It's a title I'm delighted to accept.