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Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Publisher: The University of Oklahoma Press
Available: February 2006
Format: Paper
Pages: 248
ISBN: 0-8061-3775-4
Price: $14.95



With all its passion and pain, this is a fascinating snapshot of rural American life. Publisher's Weekly

"Love of the land is not located so much in the mind, or in the heart, as in the skin: how the skin feels when you go back."
-- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Red Dirt

Dunbar-Ortiz...takes the hatred and frustration she's encountered in her life and crafts a compelling parable of one woman's ascent from these hardscrabble roots into satisfaction and enlightenment... Red Dirt has the lyrical grace and sweep of
fiction, laced with a sociopolitical awareness that reveals both its author's ties to labor issues ... and her work as a historian... Dunbar-Ortiz's story is at once sweetly nostalgic and inexorably grim, a study in light and dark... this is a strong story of an America rarely seen as more than fodder or withering caricature... Dunbar-Ortiz explores her roots with a tricky blend of pride and tough realism, one that feels all the more true for its contradictions.' Katherine Dieckmann, Village Voice July 15 1997

What else can you do but to tell about the travails and hardships, fears and violence, the joys and discoveries and affirmations, and the mysteries and revelations when you tell the story about your land, people, heritage, and your innermost self.Because that's the way you've known your life, that's the way you know how to tell the story, the truth. Red Dirt is such a story, and Roxanne Dunbar affirms this by acknowledging and expressing such a truth about her life--and we come to realizesuch a story is always a truth about oneself, whether you tell it as a historian, poet, or storyteller.

Telling a story of yourself always has to do with telling about your family, community, and cultural background. And vice versa, telling of your family, community, and culture is also telling about yourself. But it's more than that; it's also going beyond, making connections between your personal identity and the social-historical-cultural context in which you've lived, which you may have fled in fact. Roxanne Dunbar's Red Dirt makes the connections and even goes beyond that as well: by looking at her "Okie background";she has us look at U.S. nationalism, patriotism, Christian fundamentalism and the emerging question of the "origin myth"; of the United States of America. Simon J. Ortiz, poet and storyteller, author of Woven Stone and other collections of poetry and stories.

Dunbar-Ortiz reminds us of Oklahoma's radical past, a past largely unknown and almost incomprehensible to many in view of the state's predominant conservatism in modern times. Indeed, she shows us how her own radicalism resulted in part from 'growing up Okie'--perhaps a reminder of the true meaning of radicalism: of or pertaining to roots or origins; fundamental.The combination of autobiography, history, and political philosophy is remarkable here. A valuable book, perhaps especially so for Oklahomans. Davis D. Joyce, Editor, An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before: Alternative Views of Oklahoma History, Oklahoma East Central University.

Roxanne Dunbar's narrative combines valuable history and wonderfully refreshing writing. In pellucid prose she discusses her own life, with its roots in rural western Oklahoma, and uses that as a springboard for a skeptical, yet concerned examination of many of the received myths about poor white Americans. Donald Harman Akenson, author ofGod's Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster, Senior Editor, McGill-Queen's University Press.

Roxanne Dunbar's exploration of a group it seems politically correct to demean - working-class whites, mainly - is written with compassion as well as savvy. She cares about these people...but is not uncritical, just as she cares about America...but is not uncritical. This is a challenging, significant examination of an important slice of this nation's population. Gerald W. Haslam, author of Okies, and other books.

Roxanne Dunbar is the Han Su-yin of our generation: a memoirist who is stylistically in the first rank of writers. In this first volume, on her Oklahoma childhood, she gives the lie to the myth that all New Left activists of the 60s and 70s were spoiled children of the suburban middle classes. Read this book to find out what are the roots of radicalism --anti-racist, pro-worker, feminist--for a child of working-class white and Native American Okie background. Mark Rudd, Columbia University strike leader.

Now a professor of ethnic studies in California, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz turns her eye back to her own roots as a "Dust Bowl Baby" in rural Oklahoma. In telling the story of her family and their hardships in the Depression, Dunbar-Ortiz introduces the reader to some fascinating characters who are certainly not the "white trash" caricatures of popular belief. Interspersed well with her own story are historical facts that give depth to the narrative and correct popular misconceptions about "Okies" (some of which were popularized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath)

With the publication of Red Dirt Dunbar-Ortiz has made a major contribution to American biography. She has managed to write a Steinbeckian account of her childhood and youth in Oklahoma in the 1950s. The humanity and oppression of poor white people is writ large here. Red Dirt is informed by a feminist and class analysis but with great grace and touching honesty. like Meridel LeSueur's novels of 60 years ago, Dunbar-Ortiz shows the quotidian lives of working people who are ignored or riduculed by the outside world. The book is clear eyed and rich in detail. I used the book as a required text in a Sex and Gender course and it was a great hit among my students. Ron Roberts ( Cedar Falls, Iowa


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