"Sweepin' Down the Plain"

Oklahoma Reads The Grapes of Wrath as Part of Centennial Celebration

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Alex Hartley as Tom Joad, Kelley Chancellor as Pa Joad, and Randy Hemphill as Jim Casey

(left to right) Alex Hartley as Tom Joad, Kelley Chancellor as Pa Joad, and Randy Hemphill as Jim Casey perform in Trucking with the Joads for 600 juniors and community guests at Norman High School as part of Norman, Oklahoma's Big Read. Photo by Gary Kramer

In 2007 Oklahoma celebrates its centennial of statehood with a broad range of activities including an Oklahoma-themed music festival, the commissioning of sculptures and paintings honoring outstanding Oklahoma natives, and the inclusion of an Oklahoma float in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. For two Oklahoma cities -- Norman and Stillwater -- their Big Read celebration of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath are also official Centennial Projects. As Lynda Reynolds and Karen Neurohr, co-coordinators of Stillwater's Big Read explained, ". . . the focus throughout the state is Oklahoma's rich history. We saw the Big Read as a wonderful opportunity to examine the image of Oklahoma while reading a literary masterpiece."

Anne Masters, Associate Director for System Services of the Pioneer Library System in Norman, added: "We also felt a certain sense of urgency because the Dust Bowl generation is aging, and many of their memories are being lost. The Big Read discussions allowed a forum in which personal and family histories concerning the Depression Era in Oklahoma could be shared."

Each community involved readers and nonreaders alike with an extensive schedule of book discussions, memoir workshops, a discussion of Oklahoma music and its significance in the novel, and training sessions for reading ambassadors and book discussion leaders. According to the Stillwater coordinators, "All together there were several thousand people who participated by attending a program or book discussion or who learned about the Big Read from a speaking engagement to their group."

Masters said that Norman experienced the same kind of enthusiasm. "At the kick-off event, participants signed in from 20 different zip codes; Norman has only five zip codes within its city limits. Our two high school presentations alone brought more than 1,000 young people to the Big Read."

Each community plans to host future community-wide reads, and in Stillwater, organizers will present their Big Read experience to the state's librarians and educators at several conferences this fall. According to Reynolds and Neurohr, "The experience of participating in the Big Read and bringing it to our community as one of only two communities in the state to receive the grant continues to be very rewarding. It took many people to make it all work, and it was definitely worth the effort."

Collectively, the Oklahoma Big Reads involved 65 arts and culture, church, civic, hospitality, media, school, and science organizations. "Perhaps the aspect that will have the most long-term effects will be the partnerships formed through this process. Norman is no stranger to the one town, one book idea, but the Big Read took the concept to a new level of quality, excitement, and participation," said Masters.