Books of love
These Oklahoma-set novels tell tales where love truly does conquer all.
Outside of Curly and Laurey, there are really no other memorable Oklahoma sweethearts in fiction.
The most predominant literary character in our state is the frontier woman.
That stalwart female who finds herself in Oklahoma at the end of her rope, mostly because a man did her wrong. The story follows her plight to fight against all odds and, finally, to triumph, often with the promise of new love.
This is a familiar character in Oklahoma history — Ponca City built a statue in her honor — the pioneer woman. There is no man, literally or figuratively, supporting this sculpture, only a child for her to protect.
“Where the Heart Is,” the book/movie by Tulsan Billie Letts, is the most popular contemporary version of this theme. Remember pregnant Novalee, who is abandoned at Wal-Mart in rural Oklahoma?
Most of these stories take place in small towns. For instance, “Sweet Dreams at the Goodnight Motel” (2004) by Curtiss Ann Matlock takes place in Valentine, Okla. “Patsy Cline had sweet dreams here. You can, too!” Newly divorced Claire returns to her hometown to study her roots in hopes of finding herself. She finds true love, too.
Let me introduce you to Aletta Honor. She lives in Okay, Okla. You know her. This very pregnant woman and her three children were deserted by her two-timing, drunken husband. In order to survive, Aletta begins to tell fortunes — for a fee. The book by Dayna Dunbar, entitled “The Saints and Sinners of Okay County” (2003), is well written and a good read. Fannie Flagg, author of “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café,” recommends it: “a funny and poignant story of a woman struggling to liberate herself in small-town America.”
Vicki McDonough has taken this character to her zenith in her romance novel “Oklahoma Brides” (2008). Set in early Oklahoma Territory days, three women fight for survival. One of the trio is “Katie Hoffman, a young widow so determined to keep her home that she agrees to wed a stranger.”
Did you know Oklahoma was so rampant with steel magnolias? Makes me proud to be a woman in the Sooner State.
An even more extreme departure from the typical romance is Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s “Paradise” (1999). Near the rural all-black town of Ruby, Okla. (population 360), five women live without men. They are society’s outcasts, yet they manage to sustain and find solace. The men from Ruby violently attack the female enclave. This book is multi-layered and symbolic — a challenging read. Perhaps, in Oklahoma, “Paradise” is where women and men are separated.
Another challenging read brings us closer to Valentine sentiments: “Harpsong” (2007) by Rilla Askew. It is the story of charismatic, homeless Harlan Singer and his romance with 14-year-old Sharon Thompson, a preacher’s daughter in Cookson, Okla., during the Great Depression. Romance seems unlikely here, but love conquers surroundings. They honeymoon atop a freight car and spend married life bumming around the region looking for a meaningful relationship and redemption. This story works on three dimensions and is a haunting study of an age, a place, desperate poverty, red dust, religion and a unique love.
Oklahoma author Askew received the Oklahoma Book Award for Fiction for “Harpsong,” her third novel, among other awards. She deserves them all and more. Her previous novel, “Fire in Beulah,” was set during the Tulsa race riots.
Harlan and Sharon are destined for the screen and the chronicles of famous lovers.