The best books about Oklahoma

6 authors have picked their favorite books about Oklahoma and why they recommend each book.

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Paradise

By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Paradise

Morrison’s most ambitious and most underrated novel, Paradise (1997) tells the story of Ruby, a town founded by a group of African-Americans turned away after slavery from other black townships because of their darker skin color. Ruby’s male leaders accordingly establish a patriarchal community devoted to keeping bloodlines pure and youth in line. This stern society inevitably clashes with the inhabitants of a former convent on its fringes where a multiracial group of fugitive women come together amid the tumult of the 1960s. In this intensely written and kaleidoscopically structured violent epic, Morrison rewrites the Biblical Exodus and the American myth of westward settlement, she sets Christianity against Gnosticism, and she strives to do nothing less than reinvent religion for the postmodern world. Reading this as a teenager in the late ‘90s showed me that contemporary fiction could aspire to be as grand and world-changing as the classics.


Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by philosophical ideas, the more radical and counterintuitive the better. But as someone who’s never excelled at abstract thought, I’ve found these ideas’ expression in argumentative nonfiction both dry and unpersuasive, lacking the human context that would alone test the strength of propositions about spirituality, justice, love, education, and more. The novel of ideas brings concepts to life in the particular personalities and concrete experiences of fictional characters—a much more vivid and convincing way to explore the world of thought. Many readers will be familiar with the genre’s classics (Voltaire, Dostoevsky, Mann, Camus), so I’d like to recommend more recent instances I find personally or artistically inspiring.


I wrote...

The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House

By John Pistelli,

Book cover of The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House

What is my book about?

I wrote The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House between March and April 2020. I wanted to capture not the factual history of those early pandemic days, but to record the period’s apocalyptic atmosphere—fears of impending doom amid the eerie quietude; the chaos of contradictory information and ideology in a society suddenly transported online; and above all how it felt for normal life to be suspended in an existential crisis, with all our values and priorities suddenly up for debate.

My story of one quarantined apartment building whose tenants face off over art, politics, and philosophy—a struggle that builds to terrible revelations, climactic violence, and redemptive love—is about how social crisis reveals the conflicting truths at the bloody heart of our individual and social lives.

Someday Is Now

By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Jade Johnson (illustrator),

Book cover of Someday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins

When I studied the civil rights movement, nobody told me about Clara Luper or the Oklahoma City sit-ins, which took place a year and a half before the Greensboro sit-in. I didn’t even realize there was segregation that far west. Someday Is Now helps fill that common knowledge gap, but it’s also a solid introduction to “separate and unequal,” as well as a portrait of a teacher and civil rights activist who should be better known. It left me wanting to learn more about Luper and the children who joined her, especially Luper’s nine-year-old daughter Marilyn, who by her own account proposed the sit-in—without ever having heard of one!

Who am I?

I am a children’s author best known for digging up fascinating stories about famous people—and forgotten people who deserve to be famous again. As a kid, I loved reading about the old days, but I wasn’t very interested in “history,” which seemed to be dull facts about a few Great Men. In college, though, I studied social movements and discovered that we all make history together, and that it takes the combined efforts of countless unsung heroes—just as brave, hardworking, and persistent as the big names everybody knows—to achieve real change. 


I wrote...

Sweet Justice: Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

By Mara Rockliff, R. Gregory Christie (illustrator),

Book cover of Sweet Justice: Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

What is my book about?

Georgia Gilmore was cooking when she heard the news. Mrs. Rosa Parks had been arrested—pulled off a city bus and thrown in jail. And all because she wouldn’t give up her seat to a white man. To protest, the radio was urging folks to stay off city buses for one day: December 5, 1955. A boycott! Something was cooking in Montgomery, Alabama...and not just Georgia’s famous sweet potato pie.

The inspiring true story of the woman whose cooking helped feed and fund the civil rights movement. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, a Caldecott Honor recipient and seven-time Coretta Scott King award-winning artist.

Where the Heart Is

By Billie Letts,

Book cover of Where the Heart Is

Because it really is about where the heart is, a tribute to the fact that one really can find love out in the world among strangers: brotherly or sisterly love that comes from the kindness and caring of good people; or the romantic love of someone who has given up their life’s dream to care for an ailing alcoholic. These may seem like ideals that can ‘only exist in a storybook’, but they are based, I believe, in the truth of the real world, if one is brave or desperate enough to seek them out; or, like Novalee, one has no choice but to hope love and salvation find them.


Who am I?

What can better give expertise on the books one loves than decades of reading? I’ve always had a passion for sympathetic, strong characters, especially women. At the core of all my novels, readers will find a sympathetic and strong heroine. In Girlfriend Trouble, Lian is the catalyst that changes the lives of everyone around her for the better; or, more precisely, Lian’s compassion, wisdom, and serene nature are what change things. I’m probably too idealistic, but it’s better than being a cynic. There’s an element of this in all the books I’ve recommended, and those I’ve written. I like to think there’s more of it in the real world too.


I wrote...

Girlfriend Trouble

By Robert Shaw,

Book cover of Girlfriend Trouble

What is my book about?

Karate Kid meets Wimpy Kid in this YA coming-of-age story.

14-year-old Mikey dreams of the girl he longs to meet; she's so real he can almost reach out and touch her... if he didn't keep waking up and getting in trouble with the school bully. Then Mikey meets Lian in the real world, and she changes everything for everyone. Girlfriend Trouble is a funny, heart-warming story about tolerance, understanding, and the acceptance of the unpopular kids; it's about having self-confidence, self-respect, and respect for one’s peers, and about dealing with bullies both youthful and grown-up.

Letters from the Dust Bowl

By Caroline Henderson,

Book cover of Letters from the Dust Bowl

Henderson was a homesteader and teacher in the Oklahoma panhandle and this collection of her writing creates a compelling first-hand portrait of the Dust Bowl. Impeccably detailed about rural farm life, from the days of prosperity to the bare-bones existence necessitated by hardship, Henderson is a thoughtful, ponderous guide. “Out here we thought the depths of the depression had been fathomed some time ago when the sheriff subtracted from the very personal possessions of one our neighbors a set of false teeth that he had been unable to pay for.” 


Who am I?

Photographs, for me, are essential to writing about a particular period. They ignite my imagination like nothing else. For this book I pored over the Library of Congress archives of 1930s FSA photographs, particularly those by Dorothea Lange. Her photos capture humanity at its most desperate, most determined, and they walloped me. Such ruin and poverty, and lives upended. But those faces of Lange’s were what helped me find my characters. I hope that the story of the Bell family transports you to a time and place like none other in American history. These five selections will give you further insight into what life what like.


I wrote...

I Will Send Rain

By Rae Meadows,

Book cover of I Will Send Rain

What is my book about?

In Depression-era Oklahoma, the Bells wait for rain as their farm goes fallow. Teenaged Birdie dreams of running away with her boyfriend. Her young brother Fred escapes into a world of his own creation. As Samuel looks more feverishly to God for answers, his wife Annie tries to hold her family together while harboring a growing desire for another man. When the first dust storms hit, each of them is knocked off-kilter. I Will Send Rain is about a family looking for mercy and meaning in the incomprehensible, and in so doing, shining a light on what we exact from those closest to us and what holds us together. 

Rites

By Savannah Johnston,

Book cover of Rites

In every story in this heart-rending collection, the protagonists—all of them Indigenous people—are dealing with some of the most challenging circumstances that can be imagined: the tragic deaths of loved ones, the trials of trying to rebuild one’s life post-incarceration, and the fallout from substance abuse, to name just some of the difficulties the stories address. At the same time, most of the protagonists exhibit some form of resilience in response to these challenges, and I was deeply moved by the variety of this resilience, by the characters’ determination, and by Johnston’s insights into their experiences. I also love the ways in which the stories are connected by place: All of them unfold in Oklahoma, and Johnston brings their settings to life.


Who am I?

All of my novels explore, in some way, how the characters are affected by trauma or loss, and how they respond to these difficulties over time. This comes partly from my impatience with the notion of “closure” and with the idea that we can ever truly find it after a traumatic event or a significant loss. I’m drawn to fiction and nonfiction that doesn’t shy away from the messiness of finding a way to live with these difficulties, or trying to. In addition to writing fiction, I’ve spent nearly ten years recommending novels and story collections through my Small Press Picks website.


I wrote...

I Mean You No Harm

By Beth Castrodale,

Book cover of I Mean You No Harm

What is my book about?

Layla Shawn has spent most of her thirty-two years estranged from her career-criminal father, Vic Doloro, and haunted by the mysterious death of her mother. Then Vic dies, leaving Layla—an unemployed artist—a tempting inheritance of ill-gotten money. 

Urging her to take the money is Vic’s other daughter, Bette, with whom Layla shares a troubled past. On a cross-country road trip, the two women mend fences, but Layla finds herself caught in the middle of an unsettled and lethal score between her father and a man who knows more than he should about her mother's death. As Layla zeroes in on the truth and wrestles with her own demons, she finds herself face to face with a killer.

Pryor Rendering

By Gary Reed,

Book cover of Pryor Rendering

Having grown up gay in a small town in the South, this resonated with me as an out gay man in a big city in my twenties, because it got everything about being gay in a small Southern town right: the tone, the emotion, the terror, and most of all, it got how there are more of us in those small Southern towns than we realize at the time, and how leaving for bigger, “better” places isn’t always the answer. 


Who am I?

I’ve been gay for as long as I can remember. I even told my mother, when I was five years old, that I was going to marry Hoss Cartwright (from the TV show Bonanza). But even knowing yourself that well doesn’t make it easy to actually be yourself, so I still had to come out to friends and family over a span of five or six years in my late teens and early twenties. And coming out is never easy, although it feels like a million bucks once you’ve done it. Also, it’s different for everyone, and having books like these I’ve recommended may not make it easier, but they show us that it can be done and that we’re not alone. 


I wrote...

All About The Benjamins

By Zev Good,

Book cover of All About The Benjamins

What is my book about?

It has been less than a year since Susan Benjamin succumbed to cancer and her family has yet to come to terms with her death—and their own secrets. Her daughter Amy, reeling from a divorce, struggles to parent her teenaged son without controlling him as her own mother had done. Her son Adam, thirtysomething and gay, feels untethered in his mother’s absence and drifts through a series of unrewarding jobs and relationships even though he craves love and stability. Her husband Joel, father of Amy and Adam, is fifty-eight and about to come out for the first time as a gay man.

Joel’s coming out is at the center of All About the Benjamins and is, ultimately, what forces the family to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves and each other. 

The Innocent Man

By John Grisham,

Book cover of The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

We all know that Grisham writes best-selling fiction that has been turned into several Hollywood blockbusters. But the most frightening book by this former small-town defence lawyer is his only work of non-fiction, an account of the wrongful conviction of Ronald Keith Williamson of the 1982 sex murder of Debra Sue Carter. Williamson, who was low-hanging fruit for police and prosecutors in Ada, Oklahoma, languished in prison for 11 years before being exonerated by DNA evidence. This book should be mandatory reading for police, prosecutors, and judges and is a useful reminder that public opinion and justice are often mutually exclusive.


Who am I?

As an academic, I have been researching Canadian police and criminal justice history since the 1980s and I teach courses on the history of policing, crime, drugs and homicide, and capital punishment. In 2014 I began to cover a high-profile murder trial in my region of Canada and ended up writing a best-selling book on the case. The Oland case reinforced my interest in true crime, both as a research topic and a cultural phenomenon. True crime, whether set in the distant past or contemporary times, offers writers and readers alike fascinating forays into specific societies and communities as well as human nature.


I wrote...

Truth & Honour: The Oland Family Murder Case That Shocked Canada

By Greg Marquis,

Book cover of Truth & Honour: The Oland Family Murder Case That Shocked Canada

What is my book about?

Truth and Honour explores the 2011 murder of Saint John businessman Richard Oland, of the prominent family that owns Moosehead Breweries, the ensuing police investigation, and the arrest, trial, and conviction of the victim's son, Dennis Oland, for second ­degree murder.

Oland's trial would be the most publicized in New Brunswick history. What the trial judge called "a family tragedy of Shakespearian proportions," this real­life murder mystery included adultery, family dysfunction, largely circumstantial evidence, allegations of police incompetence, a high-powered legal defence, and a verdict that shocked the community. Truth and Honour explores this question: was Dennis Oland responsible for the death of his father?

Aberration in the Heartland of the Real

By Wendy S. Painting,

Book cover of Aberration in the Heartland of the Real: The Secret Lives of Timothy McVeigh

Presenting startling new biographical details about Timothy McVeigh and exposing stark contradictions and errors contained in previous depictions of the "All-American Terrorist," this book traces McVeigh's life from childhood to the Army, throughout the plot to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and the period after his 1995 arrest until his 2001 execution. McVeigh's life, as Dr. Wendy Painting describes it, offers a backdrop for her discussion of not only several intimate and previously unknown details about him, but a number of episodes and circumstances in American History as well. In Aberration in the Heartland, Painting explores Cold War popular culture, all-American apocalyptic fervor, organized racism, contentious politics, militarism, warfare, conspiracy theories, bioethical controversies, mind control, the media's construction of villains and demons, and institutional secrecy and cover-ups.


Who am I?

I am a  true-crime author. Most recently, I have released a pair of related books: The Making of a Serial Killer: 2d Ed, by Danny Rolling as told to myself; and Danny Rolling Serial Killer: Interviews. Before that, I published Good Little Soldiers: A Memoir of True Horror. Coauthored with Dianne Fitzpatrick, it relates her tale of murder & mind control under the US Army MK Ultra program. Earlier, I wrote True Vampires, an encyclopedic compendium of bloody crimes, and Knockin' on Joe: Voices from Death Row. I also collaborated with serial killer GJ Schaefer on Killer Fiction, a volume of psychopathic musings he wrote for me.


I wrote...

The Making of a Serial Killer

By Sondra London, Danny Harold Rolling,

Book cover of The Making of a Serial Killer

What is my book about?

The man convicted of the vicious murders of five college students in Gainesville, Florida, discusses his motivations and actions in committing the crimes, reflects on what made him into a killer, and his struggle to come to terms with what he did.

And Still the Waters Run

By Angie Debo,

Book cover of And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes

In Angie Debo’s classic book And Still the Water Runs, the tragic history of the forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes which consist of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole nations is well visualized in words by Debo.  Due to the murderous overthrow of the tribal ways of life, Europeans forced the Five Civilized Tribes off their land in the Southeast region to settle in Indian Territory (what is now known as the state of Oklahoma). The depiction of the tribes' fight for their land, the deadly trek of the Trail of Tears, to the foreseen dispossession of the tribe’s land in Oklahoma by the U.S. government is a heart-breaking synopsis which Debo captures passionately in a visually impactful manner. 


Who am I?

My family’s farm was lost due to a dishonest lawyer that my great-grandmother entrusted. Because of that, I have devoted the past 20 years of my career to providing low-cost legal services to aging rural farmers around estate planning and civil rights. As an attorney, I have worked for the US Department of Agriculture and the Office of Civil Rights in Washington DC. I also founded the non-profit organization F.A.R.M.S., which provides services to aging rural farmers such as preventing farm foreclosures, executing wills, and securing purchase contracts. After drafting Systematic Land Theft over the span of several years, I am happy to release this historic synopsis documenting the land theft of Indigenous and Black communities. I have written extensively on the topics of agriculture, environmental, and land injustice in a variety of legal, trade, and other publications.


I wrote...

Systematic Land Theft

By Jillian Hishaw,

Book cover of Systematic Land Theft

What is my book about?

Systematic Land Theft is a well-documented outline of U.S. history regarding Black and Indigenous land theft. Land Theft compresses 300 years of archives into 1200 footnotes, 12 chapters, and countless literary accounts told by Black farmers, civil rights leaders, and pioneers in the agricultural movement.

This is a heart-wrenching chronicle of how Blacks went from owning upwards of 16 to 20 million acres to the current estimate of 4.5 million acres. Jillian Hishaw thoroughly explains why over 97% of U.S. land is owned by White Americans and less than 3% is owned by people of color. The strategic immigration of Europeans and the adoption of English common law led to the murderous dispossession of tribal land as well. U.S. property laws have tactically benefitted Whites by allowing them to acquire stolen land and using it as collateral to secure their economic position for centuries. As Blacks continue to lose 30,000 acres per year in land ownership the need for legal and economic resolutions is immediate.

Buy this book directly from the author here. 

Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)

By Daniel Nayeri,

Book cover of Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)

Like the tornado on the book’s cover, Khosrou, the 12-year-old narrator of this autobiographical novel, storms in and sweeps you away with his stories. Khosrou (known as Daniel at his American middle school) spins tales for his classmates of Persian culture and history, his childhood in Iran, and most significantly why his family fled Iran and become refugees in Oklahoma. Khosrou tells stories to woo his middle school detractors — and to survive being the refugee kid in the back of the class. Nayeri offers an unforgettable character in Khosrou. His “patchwork story” shouldn’t be missed. 


Who am I?

Growing up on a farm in Southwestern Ontario, Canada that my family had owned for six generations, my world was small. That all changed when I moved to Toronto and met my husband, the Canadian-born son of Polish Jews who survived death camps and the Holocaust. His family taught me what it means to find yourself in the crosshairs of history, to be forced to make impossible choices under dire circumstances. I’m passionate about sharing stories that build understanding and celebrating those forced by fate to be fighters — their strong yet often surprising personalities, their unique journeys, and their inspiring grit. 


I wrote...

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

By Mary Beth Leatherdale, Eleanor Shakespeare (illustrator),

Book cover of Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

What is my book about?

From pre-World War II Europe to present-day North Africa, Stormy Seas chronicles the real journeys of five young people who fled their homes, risking their lives on the open sea to seek refuge elsewhere. Each story reveals how these young people were forced to leave behind everything familiar in search of peace and security: Ruth and her family board the St. Louis to escape Nazism; Phu sets out alone from war-torn Vietnam; José tries to reach the United States from Cuba; Najeeba flees Afghanistan and the Taliban; and after losing his family, Mohamed abandons his village on the Ivory Coast in search of a new life. With enormous courage and remarkable resilience, each overcame horrific obstacles and found hope in what life can be.

“Harrowing, wrenching, and hopeful.” - Publishers Weekly, *Starred review 

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