Monday, October 19, 2009

Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound.

By Alan Govenar.

College Station: Texas A&M University Press, December 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-1-58544-605-6, $40. 624 pages.

Review by Jonathan Hill, National University of Singapore

Anyone picking up Alan Govenar’s magisterial new book expecting a straightforward history of the blues in Texas is in for a surprise. Its modest title underplays the scope and importance of the book. This is no simple musical history, but a multifaceted retelling of the blues’ place in Texan life through interviews with the people who have made it what it is today. Some are famous – with obvious inclusions such as Albert Collins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Stevie Ray Vaughan – but most are relatively obscure. Over a hundred individuals are featured in the book, mostly telling their own stories in their own words, unencumbered by editorial comments. As such, the book builds upon the style Govenar developed in his Meeting the Blues (Taylor, 1988), and African American Frontiers: Slave Narratives and Oral Histories (ABC-CLIO, 2000), but on a grander scale. His earlier blues-related interviews reappear here, alongside a wealth of new material, lavishly illustrated in color throughout. The result is an enormous volume, weighty in every sense, but never intimidating. The photographs, many of which are by Govenar himself, are nothing short of magnificent. They include a great deal of archive material which is often as fascinating as the interviews themselves.

The book’s introduction goes over the much-trodden ground of the early history of the blues in a fresh way, paying due and welcome attention to the preconceptions of early researchers which influenced the material they collected. But this is preliminary scene-setting, since the bulk of the book focuses on the 1960s and later. Unfortunately, Govenar says little about his methodology, which is a missed opportunity. What are the strengths and weaknesses of presenting the words of the interviewees alone, with little overt editing, commentary, or other authorial voice? On what basis were these subjects and not others included? Some discussion of such methodological questions would have been extremely valuable to help locate this book in relation to the wider anthropological literature.

Much of the book’s uniqueness comes from the fact that not all of the people featured in it are primarily musicians. The first interviewee in the book is Osceola Mays, the subject of Govenar’s earlier book for children Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper’s Daughter (Jump At The Sun, 2000) and a traditional songster and storyteller rather than a professional musician. Another subject, Mariellen Shepphard, seems not to be a musician at all: her interview consists solely of a description of a raucous T-Bone Walker concert. And Big Bo Thomas gives a fascinating account of his career as a club operator and record promoter in Dallas in the 1950s and 60s. Many interviewees testify to the toughness of a life devoted to music largely out of the limelight, but others spin their tales from quite different yarn – as in Lightnin’ Hopkins’s magnificent interview, mostly devoted to outrageous musings on love and women. Much of the interest in reading such things lies in guessing where veracity gives way to hyperbole or deliberate image creation.

The inclusion of such a variety of people helps to ground the music in its context more fully, and in more variety, than an exclusive focus on performers could. It reminds us that music is not merely something that musicians do: it is something that people listen to, or dance to, something which plays a central role in a community. It also reminds us that the blues means different things to different people. If, as Clifford Geertz famously argued, every participant at a Balinese cockfight interprets the event differently, so too does everyone at a juke joint dance, or a street singer’s performance, or a studio recording. This book, with its variety of voices and their sometimes quite contradictory stories, illustrates this powerfully.

Somewhat disconcertingly, the material is not always consistently presented. Most of the interviews begin on a new page with a new heading, but those in the “Zydeco” section are all run together in a single block, making it hard to tell where one voice stops and the next begins. Many interviews are preceded by introductions giving information about the interviewee, but others have none, presenting the interviewee’s words entirely unmediated. And for some artists there is no interview at all, the book instead changing to a more conventional third-person narrative to describe their role. The effect is somewhat puzzling, perhaps testament to an identity crisis at the heart of Texas Blues. What does the book want to be? Is it a collection of oral histories, presented merely to allow the subjects to tell their stories directly to the reader? In that case, it is hard to see why there are entries for musicians for whom there is no interview material. Alternatively, is it an exhaustive cultural history of Texan blues, told partly in the first person and partly in the third? In that case, the non-interview material does not go far enough. T-Bone Walker and Freddie King, for example, deserve more than just a page or two in such a history. The book would have been more clearly focused had the third-person narratives been restricted to the introductory material, with the bulk of the book devoted only to the interviews.

Nevertheless, the overall focus is clear enough: it is not on Texan blues as a style of music (it is questionable whether such a style even exists), but on the role that the blues has played, and continues to play, in Texan communities. This book conveys that role brilliantly, and with more conviction and integrity than any conventional history could. Through it, we learn not simply facts (and perhaps a few fictions) about what actually happened. We learn what it meant to people. Govenar conveys the importance of this movingly in the prologue, describing his search for information about Blind Lemon Jefferson, the first great Texan blues singer. When he finally tracks down an old woman who knew Jefferson, she smilingly comments that he has been dead for fifty years, before closing the door in Govenar’s face. And Jefferson drifts through the book like a literary ghost, the subject of anecdotes told by many interviewees, more myth than man. The message is subtle but powerful: whatever facts one might glean about Jefferson’s actual career are less important than the continued effect his story, and even his mere name, have upon people today. Sometimes, what people believe is more important than what actually happened. Some blues scholars, such as Marybeth Hamilton in In Search of the Blues (Cape, 2007) have begun to draw attention to this fact and its role in the creation of blues as myth. By devoting the bulk of Texas Blues to the voices of those involved in the blues at all levels, Govenar does the same thing, though in a very different way. It is this, as well as the sheer quantity and variety of material, that makes this such a valuable book, and one which will undoubtedly be required reading (and a mine of primary sources) for students of the blues for many years to come

Thursday, June 25, 2009

From Dominance to Disappearance: The Indians of Texas and the Near Southwest, 1786-1859
By F. Todd Smith. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, reprinted December 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-0803220775, $24.95. 320 pages.
Review by Jeff Carlisle, Oklahoma City Community College
In From Dominance to Disappearance, F. Todd Smith chronicles the downfall of the Native Americans in Texas and the Near Southwest, an area he defines as the region bordered on the east by the Red River, on the west by the Llano Estacado, on the south by the Nueces River, and on the north by the Canadian. In effect, the Texas mentioned in the title is the Texas of the Spanish and Mexican periods rather than the larger Texas of the Republic or statehood periods. Smith intends for his work to be a successor to Elizabeth John’s massive tome Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds, which concerned Indian relations with Euro-Americans in a larger area, using the Rio Grande in New Mexico as her western border, from 1540-1795. Smith argues that Indian policies in Texas and New Mexico had little to do with each other and therefore justifies his more limited approach. Even with his smaller region, however, Smith has his work cut out for him. There were numerous tribes inhabiting the region and Eastern Indians immigrated into the area during the time span covered by his book. Slightly more than half the book deals with the Spanish and Mexican eras, and Smith does an admirable job sifting through the voluminous Bexar archives as well as other Spanish sources, even traveling to Spain itself to research. Smith details how each Indian tribe dealt with and was dealt with by the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Texans, and finally the Americans as their region changed possession over the decades.
From Dominance to Disappearance is not light reading and can become tedious at times, especially during the Spanish era, as each tribe’s actions are discussed through a series of Spanish governors, only to be followed by the next tribe’s different experiences with the same governors.
Until the 1830s, the natives retained numerical superiority and therefore maintained a powerful position against the Spanish, who had little luck subduing the Natives but at least partially succeeded in creating a stable peace with most tribes. The Mexican Revolution threw New Spain into turmoil and actually gave the Natives a brief resurgence of power. The arrival of Americans in the region, however, soon brought about the end of that resurgence. More numerous than the Spanish or Mexicans, Anglo-Americans flooded into the region in the years following the Louisiana Purchase, and many were invited to move into Texas by the Mexican government, in an effort to populate the province. Indians who found it beneficial to play one power against the other soon found themselves at the mercy of the hordes of Americans entering the region. The Americans cared little for trade or alliances, and instead wanted the land, pressuring the natives ever more to the west. The Republic of Texas launched a massive campaign against all natives, forcing most of them to flee to Mexico or the United States. Once Texas was annexed by the United States, the Indian policy was hampered by the fact that Texas retained ownership of its public lands and refused to turn over any land for Indian reservations. Eventually, in the decade before the Civil War, Texas relented and formed two reservations on the upper Brazos River. The Indians who resided there made incredible progress in making the reservations a success. Even a band of normally restless and nomadic Comanche made great strides toward becoming farmers. However, constant harassment from Northern Comanche on one side, and on the other side, Texans, who blamed every depredation on the peaceful reservation Indians (even though the latter often accompanied Texan expeditions against the hostiles), soon drove the reservation natives to distraction. Living in constant fear of reprisals for crimes they had not committed, the reservation Indians were unable to tend to their herds or crops and eventually requested a military escort to take them to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), on the eve of the Civil War. Hence, in less than a century, the Indians of Texas and the Near Southwest had indeed gone from dominance to disappearance. A brief epilogue completes the story to the present, from the Tonkawa, who were basically intermarried into nonexistence, to the Alabama-Coushatta, the only tribe to retain land, a 2800-acre reservation within the confines of Texas.
Smith has made an important contribution to Native American history of the region, and has done an admirable job of synthesizing a vast amount of information into a single volume. He has laid an impressive foundation for anyone interested in further research of tribes in the area.

Spare Time in Texas: Recreation and History in the Lone Star State
By David G. McComb. Austin: University of Texas Press, September 2008. Cloth:
ISBN 978-0292718708, $60; paper: ISBN 978-0292718890, $24.95. 300 pages.

Review by Muhammad Aurang Zeb Mughal, Durham University, England
History does not only mean the record of wars, kings and queens, disasters, or the spread of movements. History also accounts for the lives of common people and their daily activities not specifically related to their economics, politics, or religion. Spare Time in Texas is the recreational history of Texas since its emergence as a state. The book presents the different activities of Texans that they have pursued in their spare time including prostitution, gambling and drinking, football and baseball, visits to zoos and libraries, theatre, movies, radio, and television. According to McComb, who grew up in Houston and is affiliated with Colorado State University, recreational activities are “true interests” and are representative of an individual’s character because one does not choose these activities under the direction of a boss or as a job requirement (1).
McComb describes how cowboys after their farm activities came to saloons, bars, or restaurants for entertainments like gambling, drinking, and prostitutes, which have sometimes been in separate places and sometimes been under the same roof. Discussing the biological aspects of human sexuality and prostitution, McComb has shed light on the life of prostitutes and certain legal and moral concerns associated with this profession, which served as a form of pleasure or entertainment for cowboys. He has also collected information about red-light areas like “Post Office Street” and “The Chicken Ranch” from the research of different historians and social scientists. Similarly, he discusses the brief history of “The Garten Verien,” “Gruene Hall,” and “Scholz Garten” while providing details about Scottish whisky and German beer from their household use to their commercial preparation. Gambling at “Fatal Corner” and “The White Elephant” are also interesting elements of the history of recreation in Texas.
Public recreational spots like parks, zoos, and beaches are an important aspect of human life due to the participation of more than one generation and gender. City parks in Texas were built by philanthropists; later, changes in transportation systems gave rise to the development of rural parks. These public recreational places provide the pleasures of nature and are an integral part of Texan life covering approximately two million acres (68). McComb has collected the history of different such places in Texas from their construction to their development. Some of these are the plazas and parks of San Antonio, Barton Springs of Austin, Stewart Beach of Galveston, Palo Duro Canyon, Big Bend National Park, The Desolate Shore, Padre Island National Seashore, and the zoos of Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Brownsville, as well as the Gladys Porter Zoo.
A sports stadium either small or great occupies a considerable area of land and resources for its construction. Therefore, allocating resources to stadiums shows the value of sports. Football and baseball are an integral part of Texans’ recreation, and the Astrodome and Cotton Bowl stadiums are among the places where Texans have most enjoyed watching sports.
In the area of academic leisure pursuits, no one can deny the importance of books and libraries. McCombs stresses that reading acts as a pleasure beyond academic requirements. People enjoy reading books in their areas of interest in their leisure time. Thus, libraries enjoy the status of an important place. In Texas, there are many private and public libraries, and some of them are for special subjects and disciplines. Texans also own small personal libraries in their homes, while schools and universities have huge libraries with millions of books in them.
Another important and widely used source of recreation in Texas is theatre. Even after the introduction of radio, cinema, and television as alternative forms of entertainment, live theatre performed on the stage in front of audience is still popular (145).
At the end, the book has a special section that presents the history of recreation in Texas in carefully selected black and white photographs with some explanation of the context of each photograph. In all regards, the book is a wonderful description of the history of Texas recreation, providing considerable insight into Texan culture. There are some aspects not covered, however: for instance, video games and the internet.
Not only the idea itself but the way McComb has traced Texan character in the history of recreation is very innovative. It provides an opportunity to look into the history of the State with a different angle and to reveal some important aspect of Texans’ lives. The book has the potential to help researchers of history, recreation, and the American South. McComb’s use of phrases from everyday Texas life and literature will be appreciated by the readers with a literary aesthetic. Those interested in U.S. culture, especially that of the South, will find this book helpful in understanding Texans’ way of life and the status of recreational activities in their lives. Similarly, the history of these recreational activities and places in Texas will be revealing for many Texans. This book will serve as a valuable future reference on the topics it covers.

War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War
By Brian DeLay. New Haven: Yale University Press, October 2008. Cloth: ISBN
978-0300119329, $35. 496 pages.
Review by Bradley Montgomery-Anderson, Northeastern State University
War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War is the latest book in the Lamar Series in Western History. The author, Brian DeLay, is a professor of history at the University of Colorado in Boulder and is a well-known expert on borderlands history and the interactions of Native Americans with nation-states. He has made a unique contribution to the study of the U.S.-Mexican war by examining the role of Indian raids within the context of American and Mexican nation-building in the Southwest. This book is a good complement to Comanche Empire, the previous publication in the series. Like that work, War of a Thousand Deserts re-orients traditional narratives of the region by presenting indigenous nations as active participants whose role is equal to that of the more traditionally portrayed nation-state. This perspective comes through strongly throughout the book, and DeLay warns the reader, “The all too common notion that nation-states are normative and that polities deviating from that norm are somehow politically incomplete misrepresents the workings of nonstate societies” (119). Another important idea of the work is that Indian raiding reached such a scale and intensity in northern Mexico that it served as a crucial factor to the success of the American armies when they invaded that country in 1846. DeLay’s central thesis is best summarized by the name he uses for these raids as a whole; the “war of a thousand deserts” was so relentless and widespread that it depopulated the northern part of Mexico and prevented any significant economic growth there. DeLay shows how these raids coincided with the American invasion to such a degree that they fueled a Mexican narrative of the war that depicted the Americans as actually inciting and supporting the Indians.
This book is divided into three parts. In the first part, “Neighbors,” DeLay traces the path from relatively peaceful relations between the Comanches and the Mexicans to the all-out warfare that was prevalent by the 1840s. It is interesting to see how the Mexican government loses an opportunity in the 1830s to create better relations with the Comanches and their allies as northern plains tribes and removed tribes increasingly encroach upon their territory. American advances into the area, partially as a result of the removal of the southeast tribes to the region, meant a trading partner who not only provided better and more varied goods but who also helped to cement relations with these other indigenous nations. Peace with the Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1840 was followed by a dramatic increase in raids into northern Mexico. This increased raiding significantly enlarged Comanche wealth—chiefly in horses and captives—and resulted in the period of regional Comanche ascendancy as they became the center of a trading network for these plundered goods. Raids also helped to cement the alliance of Kiowas and Kiowa Apaches with the Comanches. One of the most important ideas of this book is the role of vengeance for motivating the raids as well as for creating as a unifying bond between the Comanches and their allies. The resulting incursions into Mexico DeLay characterizes as “revenge campaigns” motivated by the “galvanizing dead.” The author thoroughly explains the cultural motivations for raiding, including the intense social pressure to display bravery and military prowess.

In Part Two, “Nations,” DeLay discusses the issue of Indian raids within the framework of the emergent Mexican state. The inability of the central government to deal with the indigenous invasion of its northern territory put the very concept of a unified Mexican nation-state at risk. The poorly defended provinces came to question their role and purpose in a republic whose government seemed more concerned with palace intrigues than with the issue of national defense. DeLay provides a thorough background to the instability of the Mexican government during this period and shows how economic and political turmoil led to the neglect of the northern defenses. It is fascinating to follow his description of how the construction of a Mexican national identity becomes unraveled in the peripheries. He places this basic failure of the Mexican government as the cornerstone of what he refers to as the Texas Creation myth. In this narrative of Texas Nationhood, the Texans “made the desert smile” (229), whereas the Mexicans had been unable to develop or even defend it. Indian raids thus served as a crucial backdrop for Texan claims to independence.
The two processes outlined in the first two parts of the book—the reorientation of Indian raiding southward and the collapse of nation-building in the Mexican north—create the setting for the U.S.-Mexican war. In the third part, “Convergence,” DeLay explains how these two narratives played a decisive role in the outcome of that conflict. The Texas Creation myth becomes a more general justification of U.S. annexation of half of Mexico: “They would defeat the Indians, would redeem the captives, and would rescue the vast, derelict garden of northern Mexico from Mexican neglect” (296). The author concludes the book with an insightful epilogue on the peace treaty ending the war and specifically on the provision of the treaty requiring that the U.S. government prevent future Indian raids into Mexico.
The book has a number of attractive and useful maps; of particular interest are those that depict the individual raiding routes. An appendix shows the numbers of casualties involved in the raids and allows the reader to better understand raiding patterns. It would be more effective if the author briefly discussed the motivations and interests of the individual indigenous nations who participated in the attacks. The mechanisms and incentives for the revenge campaigns receive a thorough treatment; at the same time, it would be useful to integrate more cultural and historical information of the indigenous peoples into the overall narrative. This lack does not seriously detract from an important and well-researched work that will be a stimulating and provocative read for anyone interested in the Native American history, Mexican-American relations, borderlands history, and Southwest history in general.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

From Greenwich Village to Taos: Primitivism and Place at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s. By Flannery Burke. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, May 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-7006-1579-7, $34.95. 232 pages.

Review by Hilary Iris Lowe, University of Kansas

Flannery Burke’s From Greenwich Village to Taos examines the circle of artists, writers, and political agitators who interacted with Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, New Mexico. In addition to those who Mabel Dodge (as Burke chooses to call her) lured to Taos from Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Italy, Burke investigates the New Mexicans whom Dodge encountered when she left New York. With chapters that focus on several famous characters who either visit or play a role in creating Dodge’s Taos salon, Burke recreates the complicated world that Dodge found and loved in Taos. Burke explores how these individuals negotiated the central ideals of Modernism while devoting themselves to their vision of New Mexico as a place that held spiritual, creative, and political opportunities. Burke’s most important contribution to the study of these famous men and women—all but one have been studied in detail before—is that she considers for the first time how they functioned on a day-to-day basis in New Mexico. She delves into how the “outsiders” allied themselves with local causes and populations. Most significantly, she uncovers, through local primary sources, the complicated ways that local Hispano and Taos Pueblo populations responded to and managed Dodge and her circle.
With individual chapters on Dodge, John Collier, Nina Otero-Warren, Carl Van Vechten, Tony Lujan, Mary Austin, D.H. Lawrence, and Georgia O’Keeffe, it is hardly possible to summarize effectively the contents of Burke’s study. This breadth is both an asset and a shortcoming for the text. Several subjects deserve more time and a couple might have been left out to create a tighter focus for the book. The study is strongest when Burke concentrates on those individuals who were closest to Dodge or who were most interested in the relationship between modernism and the celebration of primitivism. Her chapter on the correlation between Mabel Dodge’s patronage of Pueblo artists and Carl Van Vechten’s patronage of African American artists (such as Langston Hughes) highlights elements of Dodge and Van Vechten’s work in comparison. Burke carefully reconstructs their conversations about the artistic communities they patronized. Each argued that the communities that interested them were the most authentically American, because as Burke puts it, they “were obsessed with authenticity” (7). This resoundingly competitive strain of advocacy allows Burke to define and explore the primitivism to which Van Vechten and Dodge were committed. Unfortunately, much of Burke’s exploration of these ideas happens in footnotes. Dodge’s advocacy for Taos Pueblo was limited by the idealized primitive egalitarian life she imagines there. Her patronage verged on historic preservation; for example, she campaigned to keep electricity and modern conveniences out of the pueblo, despite bringing them to her own estate on former Taos Pueblo land.
Burke’s chapter on Tony Lujan is also groundbreaking. Because Lujan “was functionally illiterate, “his important role in the commercial development of Taos as an artists’ colony has been largely overlooked by historians” (115). Scholars have long perceived Lujan as merely Dodge’s husband rather than an active agent in her circle. Burke explores his history in a chapter that carefully parses what readers may know about Lujan from Dodge’s letters on his behalf, from accounts of his nights out with Van Vechten in Harlem, and importantly from a few interviews with family members. Because Lujan often led tours for Dodge’s visitors, including John and Lucy Collier, D.H. Lawrence, and Georgia O’Keeffe, he was the first official guide through which they came to see New Mexico. His vision of Taos and the surrounding area profoundly influenced how these “outsiders” came to understand and develop their own desert aesthetic. Through interviews with Lujan’s nephews and niece, readers will be able to see for the first time an account of Lujan as part of a larger family, and as a local employer, landowner, and businessman. It also becomes clearer how his complicated relationship with Dodge separated him from Taos Pueblo and, at the same time, gave him power over the individuals in that community whom he chose to employ at the pair’s estate (122).
Strangely, for a book about place, Burke makes very little of Taos as a tangible place and only barely touches on the homes that Dodge, Austin, and O’Keeffe, in particular, made there. Individual homes are rarely mentioned; if readers are interested, for instance, in the estate that Lujan and Dodge built, they will find a much better account of it in Lois Rudnick’s biography of Dodge and her Utopian Vistas: Mabel Dodge Luhan’s House and the American Counter Culture. Burke does not focus on the physical places of New Mexico. Her exploration of Dodge’s place is largely limited to place as a political and social construction. She carefully articulates the ways that Dodge, Collier, Nina Otero-Warren, and Austin locate themselves within the complicated “tri-ethnic trap” of Anglo, Indian, and Hispano Taos and Santa Fe. Burke also carefully explores the complex and exclusionary world that white women made for themselves in New Mexico when they decided to call it “home” (135-144).
From Greenwich Village to Taos will be most useful to scholars interested in the study of American Modernism. They will find Burke’s work an important counter-narrative about where and how ideas about modernism were worked out. Taos—and its very particular cultural history—was an important and interactive laboratory for modern artists, thinkers, and writers.
In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near Triumph of American Eugenics. By Victoria F. Nourse. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, July 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-393-06529-9, $24.95. 240 pages.

Review by Cari Keller, Northeastern State University, Oklahoma

Victoria F. Nourse provides a fascinating historical account of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535 (1942). Skinner v. Oklahoma signified the end of Oklahoma’s eugenics program targeting certain convicted felons for involuntary sterilization. The author vividly recounts the state and national acceptance of scientific theories suggesting that criminal behavior was genetically inherited.
She begins with a discussion of the social climate of the 1920’s and 1930’s. In 1931, flamboyant Oklahoma Governor Alfalfa Bill Murray executed a law authorizing the involuntary sterilization of citizens suffering from mental illness, mental retardation, or epilepsy who were housed in asylums or publicly funded institutions. The prevailing scientific wisdom of the time advocated eugenics: the segregation and sterilization of those who had serious hereditary defects in order to prevent the continuation of these defects in future generations. By this time, more than half of the states had eugenics statutes targeting imbeciles, idiots, and the feebleminded. During the 1930’s, these states practiced compulsory sterilization at an average rate of 2,000 citizens per year.
This practice was, as Nourse discusses, not without its critics. The Catholic Church became a vocal opponent of eugenics laws. Several court cases were filed on behalf of those subject to immediate sterilization. While these cases were frequently unsuccessful, courts were consistently suggesting that eugenics laws were degrading and humiliating. A New Jersey court implied that eugenics laws could be abused by tyrannical majorities to subjugate perceived weak or inferior classes. Discussions at this time posed a fear that eugenics laws could be used to control racial or class populations. One case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. In 1927, Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), silenced the judicial critics of the time and upheld a state’s power to protect the welfare of its citizens from those considered less desirable. In framing his opinion, Justice Holmes stated, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes” (274 U.S. at 207). Carrie Buck’s sterilization heralded several new compulsory sterilization laws and influenced its use against a different population, the “habitual offender.”
It is ironic, as Nourse describes well, that the United States was keeping a watchful eye on Nazi Germany’s controversial involuntary sterilization program as they sought to achieve the “pure” race. Newspapers across the country editorialized about the dangers inherent in the Nazi theory of eugenic purity and their fixation on Jews, Catholics, Gypsies, and Protestants. At the same time, the Oklahoma legislature passed the Oklahoma Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act of 1935. The act authorized the sterilization of inmates with three or more felony convictions involving moral turpitude. However, it specifically exempted white collar crimes such as embezzlement, crimes against prohibitory laws, or political crimes. The law’s psychological impact on Oklahoma prisoners held significant consequences for the Department of Corrections.
Nourse details more than one prison break or riot resulting from the enforcement of the new sterilization law. In chapter 6, Nourse describes the tension and pressure felt by the prisoners and guards alike at McAlester State Penitentiary. The day after the state initiated the first sterilization proceeding against an inmate, a riot erupted in the brickyard. Several inmates took a civilian hostage, along with two guards, and attempted to escape using a guard’s vehicle. When all was said and done, the foreman was found dead and the prisoners were recaptured. The riot’s instigator, Claud Beavers, was a three-time convicted felon, eligible for sterilization under the new law. The first prisoner chosen for sterilization, Hubert Moore, also escaped from McAlester approximately one month after the state proceeded with its case. Enter Jack Skinner. The state of Oklahoma wasted no time; they filed a Petition for Sterilization against Jack Skinner the day following Moore’s escape.
Jack Skinner, a three-time felon, pleaded guilty to chicken stealing and two armed robberies as his predicate offenses. As a young man of only twenty-seven, sterilization appeared to be his certain fate. However, the atmosphere inside the prison proved tumultuous for then-Warden Wash Kenny. While denying that the recent prison break and ensuing riots were related to compulsory sterilization, Kenny released $1,000 from prison canteen funds to attorney Claud Briggs. Thus, Briggs and his team embarked on an uphill journey to challenge the constitutionality of compulsory sterilization.
Nourse carefully develops the historical context of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Skinner v. Oklahoma. She devotes several chapters to Skinner’s trial, the composition of the Supreme Court during that period, and the political climate of the nation between 1936 and1942. The factual background is complex, and many relevant events preceding this decision occur simultaneously. The author presents the material clearly and concisely.
The chapter revealing the Skinner decision intertwines the challenging constitutional jurisprudence with the social philosophy of the time. The Skinner decision is infrequently cited in modern jurisprudence, usually recalled for what it failed to do. A unanimous court held that Oklahoma’s compulsory sterilization law as applied violated the fourteenth amendment’s equal protection clause insofar as it created two classes of habitual offenders. The Court opined that the exemptions for embezzlement or political crimes could not sustain rational-basis review. The court explained that stealing twenty dollars from a stranger and stealing twenty dollars from an employer were known by different terms, larceny and embezzlement, respectively. However, each were punished the same under the Oklahoma code. Yet, an inmate thrice convicted of larceny was subject to compulsory sterilization, whereas the inmate thrice convicted of embezzlement was not (Skinner, 316 U.S. at 539). While the Court stated that “[m]arriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race,” the Court stopped short of declaring the same fundamental rights under the Constitution (Skinner, at 541). The Court did not declare compulsory sterilization unconstitutional in and of itself, nor did the Court overturn Buck v. Bell. However, as Nourse points out, legislative attempts to redraft or expand compulsory sterilization were regarded with stricter scrutiny.
Overall, In Reckless Hands is an engaging account of America’s—and Oklahoma’s—constitutional and social history.
Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma: Stories from the WPA Narratives. Edited by Terri M. Baker and Connie Oliver Henshaw. Foreword by M. Susan Savage. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, October 2007. Cloth: ISBN 9780806138459, $29.95. 280 pages.

Review by Michel Demyen, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Through the stories of Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma, the editors bring to light an era long gone. The narratives in this book describe adaptability, courage, and an adventurous spirit. Arranged into seven chapters, the book outlines the building of Oklahoma through the lives of the women who settled there, bringing forth new life, cultures, languages, and skills. The pioneering women—African American, white, and Native American—lived, grew, and created relationships together in order to survive without boundaries, without discrimination.
Some particular historic events covered in the narratives include the tragic Trail of Tears, the forced displacement of Native Americans; the Civil War; and run-ins with famous outlaws such as the James gang and the Daltons. Belle Starr, too, appears in a narrative or two. The narratives also tell the story of the railroad pushing its way through the land, opening up opportunities for businesses and communities to flourish, and of the Chisholm Trail and the endless sea of cattle slowly making their way through the waist-high prairie grass. Through the narratives of the women we see tent towns spring up and disappear; we see names of towns change or become familiar landmarks such as Tulsa and Guthrie. The book describes a simpler yet challenging era, a time when survival and friendship were more important than material things.
Long before white women or African American, Native American women forged homes and lives in Oklahoma. Throughout the general history of the region, tribal customs, alliances, and conflicts were challenged by the influx of newcomers to the territory. These newcomers came from all parts of the United States to settle and build their own identity. From crossing rivers and battling prairie fires, to simply finding shelter in a dugout on a hill, these new families faced nearly insurmountable obstacles before making a home in their new land. Some claimed land during the Oklahoma land run, racing wildly across the countryside in search of that perfect spot to call home. Others married natives in order to secure property. They filed claims, learned that someone had claimed the same property, then searched again and filed another claim, finally finding their little piece of paradise. In a land of constant dangers including potential attacks, thieves, wild animals, and countless other conflicts and struggles, these women faced shared one common basic goal: to survive.
The book highlights the importance to the early pioneers of animals and livestock. People depended for survival on livestock to provide eggs, meat, milk, butter, and transportation. Without a horse or even oxen for transportation, life was very difficult. The dog was an essential part of pioneers’ lives because it provided protection and companionship, and was an extra hand when rounding up cattle.
Toward the end of the Civil War, many women of all nationalities were widowed, children orphaned. Faced with this adversity, women took up roles formerly limited to men, opening businesses, selling produce, and taking in boarders. Others opened up schools in their homes. They battled wild animals and gunslingers to protect what little they had. They had to learn how to carry and shoot a rifle due to the changing population of Oklahoma, which brought in a wide variety of individuals. The chapter on coping with lawlessness shows how pioneer women were constantly exposed to threats by criminals, gangs, soldiers, or Indian attacks. Towns became battlegrounds, with saloons and prostitution bringing in cowboys who had too much money to spend and took advantage of the lack of law enforcement.
Such stories, though, are only part of pioneer women’s lives; we also get a look at their strengths and fears. Their ability to maintain a positive attitude and to focus on family and hope is inspiring. Women today could still learn a few things from the experiences and words of wisdom of the women pioneers. Although the book attempts to depict how women pioneered the Territory of Oklahoma, there are more examples of white women’s being affluent than of either African American or Native American women. White women appear in the book as having more material things, or possessing a more refined manner and education. Whether the editors intended to suggest this, or it was due to lack of available information on African American and Native American women, is not clear. Although the chapters are well organized, and the content provides fabulous insight into the lives of the Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma, the narratives themselves are presented somewhat haphazardly and skip from one decade to another. On the same page there are, for example, narratives written about the Civil War of the 1860s next to narratives of women riding side-saddle in the 1890s. It would have been helpful to organize the narratives within chapters in a more chronological manner.
Pioneering women not only laid the foundation for future feminist movements and for working equally with men in cattle drives, hunting, and fending off outlaws; they were also the ultimate “modern women” of their time. They took pride in their strong family values and cared for their neighbors regardless of race or nationality. Women pioneers took joy in the simple pleasures of family gatherings, parties, and dances. Through all of this the women who pioneered Oklahoma created a life. They established schools and took care of their children and each other. They did not see their situation as difficult, bleak, or dangerous. To them it was simply their life. They did what they had to do. This wonderful book shows them doing it, in compelling, immediate detail.