I received this free ARC via NetGalley from Algonquin Books in exchange for an honest review.
Rating: 5 Stars
2017 was terrible for me in getting my NetGalley ARCs read. Since February I have been working on my own book and I just did not review nearly as much as I wanted to. My galleys in particular were set to the side and one of resolutions for 2018 is to get them all read and reviewed properly.
As soon as I saw Dust Bowl Girls, I knew I had to request it. My reasoning was two-fold, and I suspect that there are many who may have requested it for the same reasons I did:
1. I love basketball and played for years. March Madness is the greatest time of year.
2. A League of Their Own is one of my favorite movies and this seemed to be in a similar vein
I was not disappointed. Once I started reading, I could not stop. I only wish I had read this one a year ago, back when I first got it.
Dust Bowl Girls tells the story of the women's basketball team from Oklahoma Presbyterian College in Durant, Oklahoma in 1931. We learn about Sam Babb, their coach, who traveled back and forth all over Oklahoma to recruit women to play for OPC. The women were given the opportunity to not only play the sport they loved, but do also get a college education - something of high value in the midst of terrible suffering with farmers losing harvests, banks closing down, and families barely making ends met. He offered these young women a chance to change their fate and many took him up on the chance. Before Babb came into their lives, most of the girls were working on their family farms, playing basketball on make-shift dirt courts, helping out their family any way they could. College was certainly out of the question for most, as there was no money to pay for such a luxury - especially in a time where so many farms were struggling as it was and the loss of crops in one season could mean losing everything else as a result. There were several girls though, who despite taking the chance, were simply not up to the challenge once they arrived on campus and practice started. One of the star players made an interesting observation about why she thought this was so.
"In fact, after much thought about the issue of so many girls quitting the team and going home, Lucille had decided the poorer the girl, the harder she worked. All the poorest girls were still there" (38%).
The author, Lydia Reeder, is the perfect person to write such a book, as she is the great niece of head coach Sam Babb. Her writing style is smooth and engaging, and if you are one who enjoys their non-fiction to read like fiction, you may enjoy this. It is rare for me to get caught up in such non-fiction usually, because I am very much a "just the facts" person who does not like a lot of supposition. There were times for me when this was off-putting, especially when she was describing a daily run by one of the players. There is simply no way the thoughts and details could have been recorded anywhere or in such detail. There will be times of dramatic flair added, but not in a way that distracts from the actual story, or embellishes any of the accomplishments of this talented teams. And Reeder not only had access to stories passed down in her family, but scrapbooks, newspapers, interviews with the players, etc to rely on to paint a very vivid portrait of life for these young women. In fact some of those 'extras' that can make a book so special found their way into the pages - tons of team photos, newspaper articles about the season, and even a photo of a ticket stub from one of the games. Those kinds of artifacts are wonderful additions and enhance the text. At the end the author also provides extensive notes explaining how she came by the information and how it all worked to bring this story to life.
In addition to the story of the 1931 team and their undefeated season, we are given information about the history of women's basketball in general, as well as certain aspects of Oklahoma's history - not least of which is the terrible legacy of the treatment of Native Americans there. The players, who several themselves had Native American ancestry in the not-so-distant past, were given the task of teaching younger Indian students table manners during meals.
While the story of this team and the many women who played for many different teams was enchanting, that was not the case for the entire country - including First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. I myself played basketball for many years, am still a fierce competitor in nearly every aspect of my life (truly, I can make almost anything into a competition). Hearing stories from my grandma about how in the 50s when she was in middle school and high school, the girls could only play half-court basketball because they weren't strong enough to play full-court baffled and angered me. Then to see that and more in this book, while I logically knew there were many who thought was an acceptable and appropriate way to think of women and sports, made me even angrier. Basketball was not considered an acceptable sport for young women to play. They were not physically, emotionally, mentally tough enough to do so. Malarkey, I say. They were instead encouraged to play tennis or golf - yawn. Instead of having competitive varsity teams, many schools basically had what amounted to play dates with other schools, which concluded with sharing milk and cookies. I mean, seriously? Give me a break. It was okay for young women to learn some athletic sills, but never to get too good at any single sport. I know of course that those attitudes today do not exist on the large scale they did then, but the backwardness of it all really grated on my nerves. Authorities at the time were so afraid that too much physical activity would eventually cause the young women to "turn into men". No joke, when it was discovered that more active women did not have regular menstrual cycles, there was a fear that the uterus would wither away altogether. The "Women's Division" was a massively annoying group of women, including the aforementioned Hoover, who were incredibly anti-feminist women who set the rules and if the AAU wanted to continued having female athletes, they had to compromise sometimes. This gaggle of women were so sure that the young ladies would not be able to stand the pressure of competition and the ones that did not would somehow become tomboys who lost their ability to be "ladylike".
All in all, this was such a wonderful read, even when I was shaking my fist at those who tried to limit or prohibit altogether women from playing basketball. I am forever grateful to these pioneering women who forged this path, allowing generations after them to come to know and love this game so dearly. Fantastic read, highly recommended.