Stories Behind the Story: The Edge of Nowhere

Oklahoma State Flag Image Source:
Oklahoma State Flag
Image Source:

A dear friend of mine recently referred to going back home to Oklahoma as being akin to putting on a favorite old warm fuzzy robe and slippers. It just feels good.  I have to concur.  In another week or so, I’ll be returning to Oklahoma for the first time in about two years.  To say I’m homesick is an understatement.  My heart aches for the red dirt of Oklahoma.  It weeps for the tall stalks of wheat swaying in the fields, just before harvest.  I miss my great big extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins.  There truly is no place like home.

The timing of my trip home couldn’t be better.  My debut novel, The Edge of Nowhere, will soon be released by Penner Publishing.  It’s a novel about my homeland; a work of historical fiction based upon Oklahoma in the 1930s during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and The Great Depression.  It tells the story of a young woman from Oklahoma struggling alone to raise her large family after the death of her husband during arguably the worst destruction to ever hit American soil.

“Abandoned farmstead in the Dust Bowl region of Oklahoma, showing the effects of wind erosion, 1937”
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The theme of this novel is no accident.  I was raised in Oklahoma and am the daughter and granddaughter of Oklahoma Dust Bowl survivors.  I grew up on the stories of my grandmother’s unyielding tenacity as she fought to raise her children alone after the death of my grandfather.  She wasn’t even 30 and had five children with my grandfather, and another 5 mostly grown step-children for whom to provide (and another husband and four children came along later).  While it’s true that her stepchildren were mostly independent by this time, they were still family and I have no doubt that she felt responsible for their welfare as well as her own biological children.

My grandfather was a fairly young man when he passed.  He suffered an appendicitis rupture at a time when medical care wasn’t as accessible as it is today.  They were poor, lived out in the boonies, and even had they realized the problem in time they never could’ve gotten him to a surgeon quickly enough.  His first symptom was a death sentence, and he left my young grandmother — a city girl, born and raised — on a farm with a brood of children to raise.  They were quite literally “dirt-poor” at a time when social services like welfare and Obamacare were only a dream.

My grandmother wasn’t an easy woman when I knew her.  She wasn’t “soft” like other grandmothers.  She wasn’t unkind, but she was scary.  We knew not to mess with her or we’d likely find ourselves on the other end of a switch or her cane.  So we didn’t push her.

The Edge of Nowhere is my own reimagining of how and why my grandmother came to be the woman she was.  It’s a complete work of fiction with several family anecdotes thrown in, and it all started with one question:  How does a young woman raises 5+ children in the midst of the worst abject poverty with no husband and no resources?  How does she provide for her children?  What obstacles might she face?  What would she do to overcome those obstacles?  What would any parent do to provide and protect her children?  And, maybe most importantly, how do those choices change and shape her into the person she becomes?

“Migrant Mother” fleeing Oklahoma during the 1930s Dust Bowl
Photo Credit: Dorthea Lange (1936)

Most people are familiar with John Steinbeck’s epic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  For those unfamiliar, the story focuses on the Joad Family who flees the desolation that has become Oklahoma during the 1930s Dust Bowl.  They migrate to California and face no end of hardship on their journey, but eventually find greener pastures in the beauty beyond the dust and dirt of Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma.  Steinbeck’s novel is beautifully crafted and one of my all-time favorites, but it focuses only on those who left Oklahoma.  The truth is that most Oklahomans were too poor to leave.  Most Oklahomans had no choice but to stay behind and make the best of a really bad situation.  They were simply too poor to pack up and leave, and Oklahoma was what they knew. It was home.  The result was that many became homeless and/or died from the conditions.  Those families who survived are still there today, working the same farms that refused them so many years before.  They are resilient and they are survivors.

In the coming months, I’ll bring you more information about my novel:  The Edge of Nowhere.  I’ll post pictures of the places that inspired this story…the beautiful wheat fields and red dirt of Oklahoma.  I’ll tell the stories passed down from generation to generation…all in anticipation of my novel’s release in early 2016.

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