Sunday, December 2, 2012

Prairie City, by Angie Debo

In Enid, Oklahoma, we visited the local museum which was hosting a traveling exhibit prepared by the Oklahoma Historical Society.  It featured men and women who had been instrumental in the history of the territory and state, and of course included many people unfamiliar to us.  One, a writer, caught our attention: Angie Debo, who was one of the major historians and teachers of Oklahoma history. It took us a few more stops before we found a copy of her best-known book, Prairie City, which was published in 1944 but now reissued by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Debo tells the story of the town she calls Prairie City but which is really Marshall, Oklahoma, where she arrived as a child and spent much of her life.  The book, which won several awards for its treatment of social history, reads like a story; in fact in some lists it is described as fiction, but it is solidly based on facts and statistics (and it is her gift that those statistics don't obtrude on the narrative).  Prairie City, soon known to its residents simply as "Prairie" because it never became a real city, was one of the places affected by the Runs, a strange lottery in which would-be settlers registered for a chance to homestead a section of land, then at the bark of the starter's gun they raced to find their spot in a chaotic, dusty, dangerous event -- the opening of the Cherokee Strip.
One of the first settlers established a general store. Others broke ground for farming, while still others either sold their claims or negotiated some other deals.  As the town grew, we learn about the establishment of first one church and then others, then the beginnings of a school.  In the course of time, Prairie experiences booms and busts, they reluctantly turn from wheat farming to oil production with its noise and pollution and volatile financing.
When the First World War began, Prairie planned to ignore it, but as soon as the first of its young men went off to fight, the town discovered reserves of patriotism  -- and anti-German prejudice.
During the Great Depression, Prairie was hard hit, and she tells us in vivid detail how it affected the settlers, even though, as she points out, the Oklahoma farmers outside the dust bowl were relatively able to survive the hardest times.
But growth and progress and tough economic times took some of the spirit out of Prairie.  Or perhaps it was just that the first settlers were getting older. The last part of the book has a gently mournful tone.
Debo won an Alfred Knopf fellowship for Prairie City when it was first published. She spent her entire career as a historian, writing and teaching about the history of Oklahoma.  In her nineties she was still going strong.  Prairie City would have a more critical reception today because of its lack of notes or other documentation and her blithe admission that she has created a composite community.  But whether or not this is an accurate description of the history of Marshall, Oklahoma, it is a convincing and memorable portrait of any number of small Midwestern towns.


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