9th Grade Oklahoma History (Oklahoma)
Rifles for Watie (Harold Keith) – Young Jeff Bussey joins the Union army after Bushwhackers attack his family farm in Kansas. His idealism is soon tempered by wanting very much not to die, and he eventually he ends up as a spy in the Confederate army – giving readers a nice view of both sides of the war, at least in terms of the views of those doing the actual fighting and dying. When I used to teach the Civil War in U.S. History we read this right after The Killer Angels (Michael Shaara). There's a nice contrast between the two – Eastern Theater vs. Western Theater, the view from the “tops” vs. the view from the “bottoms,” etc. And in case you're wondering about the connection, Stand Watie is a key figure in Oklahoma History (it's Oklahoma – we only have about six of them, not counting Reba McEntire). This is an easy read, although the bucolic tone – while appropriate to the times – can irritate modern readers a bit.
True Grit (Charles Portis) – This tale of young Mattie Ross searching for her father's killer in the company of Rooster Cogburn and Glen Campbell has spawned two pretty decent movies, but it works even better as a study of late 19th century Indian Territory and its peoples. It's a surprisingly accessible read, but just literary enough you can push the ELA elements a bit along the way if you wish. Average readers can follow the story, while strong readers can be prompted to ponder some of the subtleties Portis weaves into the text. One of my favorite books in or out of class – Mattie gets better and better with every read. SIDE NOTE: This is one of only two books I can think of which has been made into a movie twice, both of which are fairly true to the book and still worth watching, yet distinct from one another. (If anyone can guess what the other one is, I'll send you a Blue Cereal #11FF Lunch Box!)
Shane (Jack Schaefer) – Yeah, yeah, I know... this book isn't set anywhere near Oklahoma. The story takes place in Wyoming of all places. BUT, Shane is the prototypical homesteader story – the American Dream via a small farming family vs. the looming specter of large-scale ranching/bonanza farms. A mysterious stranger rides into town and uses his ability to do bad things to people in order to protect the idyllic family. Written shortly after WWII, astute readers will notice the tense balance between peaceful ideals and the violent force sometimes necessary to defend them – like many westerns, it's set in the Old West but it's also very much about the time in which it was written. That's perfect, though, for teaching Oklahoma history as a unique element of a larger, more universal landscape. This book helps understand that landscape in ways any Oklahoma settler would recognize.
If We Must Die: A Novel of Tulsa's 1921 Greenwood Riot (Pat Carr) – This one breaks my rule regarding ease of purchase for this list. (We usually had to order it special from the publisher. It appears to be on Amazon now, but it cost about twice what most of the titles I use typically do.) On the other hand, we did so because we liked it that much. Berneen is a white school teacher who unwittingly takes a position at a black school in Tulsa where she passes for black before fully understanding her situation. The reading level is accessible without being insulting, and uses fictional characters to establish racial and cultural realities of the early 20th century. The Riot itself is experienced rather than explained, but overall the books is content-heavy enough that we used it in every Oklahoma History class, all levels, every year, but still grounded in relationships and worries which will resonate with almost any reader. There are far more substantial books about the Tulsa Riots of course, but most are well above the reading level and academic processing abilities of all but my strongest kids.
The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) – OK, this one was pretty meaty even for my Pre-AP kids. The reading level itself is not that challenging, but the depth of ideas, the style, and the length are daunting without some scaffolding. Still, it's the freakin' GRAPES of freakin' WRATH – you really should read it at some point if at all possible. Obviously it's totally Okie, but it's also such an amazing book – even if you're NOT a Godless Socialist like Steinbeck. Put on some Woody Guthrie and your Bernie 2020 t-shirt and dive in.