Four Titles for Oklahoma
How did Oklahoma Humanities and the Oklahoma Department of Libraries select four particular titles from the list of 100 for a Great American Read edition of Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma?
In reviewing the list of 100 novels, OH and ODL staff initially considered any Oklahoma connections with the titles (author or setting). Three titles on the list of 100 were written by Oklahoma authors (The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls) and one is eternally wed to the state: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. We eliminated Steinbeck’s novel since many programs have been held on that book over the years. Of the three remaining titles, two have blazed new trails in American literature and seemed like obvious choices.
Two other titles stood out to selectors, since they have landed on recent bestsellers lists years after their publication: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and 1984 by George Orwell. The rise in popularity of authoritarian politics in western democracies has helped these two titles find new readers at this moment in time. In addition, The Handmaid’s Tale has benefited from a Hulu series based on the novel.
Let’s dive deeper into the titles…
The Publication of Two Novels by Oklahoma Authors Were Watershed Moments in American Literature
“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
Oklahoma City native Ralph Ellison was 38 when Invisible Man was published in 1952. It would become the first work of fiction by an African American to win the National Book Award. The novel is a big, bold odyssey filled with the comedic and the horrific, anger and hope. A literary tension pervades the work, between the specificity of the protagonist’s suffering and the universal theme of what it means to be human, between realism and the fantastic, and between the need to belong and the need to have an individual identity. The book was hailed as a work of art upon its publication, and it continues to make lists of the best books of the 20th century. It has never been out of print.
Other books by Ellison include a short story collection, Flying Home and Other Stories; two collections of essays, Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory; and the posthumously-published novel Juneteenth.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
“Things were rough all over, but it was better that way. That way you could tell the other guy was human too.”
When Tulsa teenager Susan Eloise Hinton heard about a friend being beat up simply because he was a “greaser,” it made her mad. “I went home and started pounding out a story,” she said. Hinton sold The Outsiders when she was only 17, and it was published in 1967 when she was going on 19 years of age. The novel is the story of Greasers from the wrong side of the tracks, the Socs from the richer side of town, and the conflict between them. Unlike other books available to young people at the time, Hinton’s work captured the reality of being young, and presented relatable characters to an audience hungry for authenticity. Young adult literature has never been the same.
Other books by Hinton include Rumble Fish; That Was Then, This Is Now; Tex, Taming the Star Runner, Hawkes Harbor, and Some of Tim’s Stories.
Two Classic Dystopian Novels Have Landed Back on Bestsellers Lists
“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”
In the totalitarian theocracy of Gilead, formed after the overthrow of the U.S. Government, women are only valued for their fertility and for their subjugation to men. Following the Handmaid character Offred (literally “of Fred”), the book reveals what life is like for Handmaids who are used as breeding stock, as well as for other women who are relegated to oppressive stations simply because of their gender. In the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, Atwood’s stirring work of speculative fiction has found a starring role in the current cultural and political climate. The novel won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987.
Other books by Atwood include The Blind Assassin, The Penelopiad, Alias Grace, The Edible Woman, Hag-Seed, and the MaddAddam trilogy of novels: Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam.
1984 by George Orwell
Big Brother. Doublethink. Newspeak. The Ministry of Truth. The Thought Police. The terminology and institutions in Orwell’s dystopia have become part of our own language, used to humorously and seriously express our own fears of surveillance, corrupted language, and loss of freedom. The novel itself, published to critical and popular acclaim in 1949, often reemerges on the scene during times of political apprehension. And so it has again in this age of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” A January, 2017 Washington Post piece noted “…by far the greatest beneficiary of our newly piqued national anxiety is George Orwell’s 1984.” More than 30 million copies of the book have been sold since its publication.
Other books by Orwell include Down and Out in Paris and London, The Clergyman’s Daughter, Keep the Apidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, and Animal Farm.