Two Books, One Community: Stillwater Reads The Great Gatsby and Fire in Beulah

Story and images provided by the Stillwater Public Library

When we think about the 1920s, we think of the fun and freedom before the Depression. Sleek flapper girls with fringe whirling as they Charleston across the dance floor. Dapper Dans downing bathtub gin with the hot sounds of a tinny horn trumpeting into the night air. Life was “ducky” and every experience was the “cat’s meow.” That’s certainly what happens in the movies.

What we do not like to think about are the moments that were not so fun and glitzy. The snarling, violent times taking place during the giddy, roaring 20s. One of the worst of those violent times happened right here in Oklahoma.

Stillwater Public Library, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and OSU Library will be examining the turbulent decade of the twenties in their new community wide literature series, “Two Books, One Community: The Great Gatsby and Fire in Beulah,” taking place March 8-April 29.

“We chose to read The Great Gatsby because the book is often considered THE American novel,” said Lynda Reynolds, library director. “We were incredibly excited to plan the programs for a Gatsby series. Who doesn’t love Flapper dresses, jazz joints, and sparkling beads?

“But, as we laid out the schedule, we noticed a lot of glitz and glamour, but not much focus on the meat of the book, which at its heart is a very sad tale of carefree, youthful Americans who have everything, but ultimately destroy themselves.”

At the same time, Reynolds was missing the impact of having an Oklahoma story as the backdrop of the community series.

“From our first series, The Grapes of Wrath, to the latest, True Grit, most of our community reading events have been about us,” said Reynolds. “About our communities. About our Oklahoma. So, we decided to add another book to the series. One that portrays an Oklahoma experience, while also showing a vastly different view of the Gatsby period.”

The result is Stillwater’s first two-book community reading series. Along with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the community will be reading Fire in Beulah by Oklahoma author Rilla Askew. Askew’s novel tells the intertwining stories of Oklahoma women in the early 1920s: Althea, the wife of an oil wildcatter; Graceful, her black housemaid; and Iola, a Creek freedwoman. Their stories culminate in a depiction of the worst race riot in American history- the fiery destruction of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, also known as “Black Wall Street.”

“The opening of this turbulent and fascinating decade begins with the total destruction of ‘Black Wall Street,’” said Reynolds. “It’s an event that eerily portends the destruction of the country’s Wall Street at the end of the decade.”

Keeping a good balance between the serious nature underlying the two novels and the dizzying joy of the 1920s was a challenge.

“We want community readers to understand the turmoil people were experiencing as the nation progressed and changed in the early twenties,” said Reynolds. “At the same time, we want to offer experiences that portray the unrestrained freedom that people were feeling after the war, but before the stock market crashed.”

The resulting schedule is a mix of artistic workshops, thought provoking lectures and discussions, and entertaining activities.

“This series has something to offer everyone in the community,” said Reynolds. “Whether you are looking for a learning experience, community interaction, or plain old entertainment, you will find it here.”

The fun begins Tuesday, March 8, with a double event kick-off. The community is invited to share noon “mocktails” at the library as local singer (and librarian) Tiara Young entertains the crowd with twenties jazz tunes. Afterward at 1:30 p.m., Dr. Andrew Vassar will speak at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s Town Hall. Vassar, an English professor from Northeastern State University, will provide an essential comparison that will help readers as they dive into the two books.

In the evening, readers twenty-one and over should make their way to Brooklyn’s at 701 South Main and head down to The Cellar. Whisper the code phrase, “I have an appointment to see Mr. Wolfshiem,” to gain entry to the evening’s speakeasy, where Young will heat up the room with hot jazz ditties and where drinks and food will be available for purchase.

At each of the kick-off events, readers can sign-up to participate in the series and receive free copies of both books and a listing of all events. Some of the offerings include ballroom dancing, a fashion show, and exhibit on life in 1920s Stillwater, and a 1920s downtown walking tour, along with programs on Art Deco architecture, the Negro Baseball Leagues, KKK activity in Payne County, and the mob in Oklahoma. Of special note is the Town and Gown theatrical production of “The Great Gatsby” taking place April 7-10 and April 14-17

The grand finale will take place on Saturday, April 23, when the Stillwater Community Center will host a 1920s dance with the Stillwater Jazz Band.

Peppering this busy schedule is an array of book discussions taking place throughout the community.

“At the heart of our series are the discussions,” said Reynolds. “There is nothing better than reading and thinking about a book, and then sharing those thoughts with other book lovers who have completely different ideas.”

New this year are book discussions with a twist, including talks centered around shared activities like a soul food potluck dinner, a cocktail mixing lesson, or an art project. In addition, readers can choose between attending a discussion on just one book or they can go to sessions where both books will be discussed and compared.

“We have so many opportunities for community members to connect over these books,” said Reynolds. “It will be a great time to meet new friends and to reach out to others in the community.”

For Reynolds, the highlight of the series will be another purely literary event, a visit by Askew.

“While we will learn a lot about F. Scott Fitzgerald over the next few months, we are extremely fortunate to get a chance to meet our other author in person,” said Reynolds. “Rilla’s visit on March 28 is one we hope the entire community will support by attending. It will be a chance to see a perspective of ‘Fire in Beulah’ that you cannot get anywhere else.”

The Oklahoma born Askew received a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and her story “The Killing Blanket” was selected for “Prize Stories 1993: The O. Henry Awards.”

Askew’s first novel, The Mercy Seat, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Dublin IMPAC Prize, was a Boston Globe Notable Book, and received the Oklahoma Book Award and the Western Heritage Award in 1998.

Fire in Beulah received the American Book Award and the Myers Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights. It was also selected as an Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma book for the Oklahoma Centennial Project.

Prior to the publication of Askew’s novel, few people had heard about the Tulsa Race Riots.

“The event we call now the Tulsa Race Riot is an American story,” said Askew. “It’s not just an Oklahoma story, or a Tulsa story. It’s a national tragedy. It belongs to all of us. It should be known by every American in complete detail. And yet even today many have never heard of it, or if they have, they don’t really know what happened. Why is that?”

Reynolds hopes that area readers will come to understand more about these events, and even our own community, during the library’s series.

“Ultimately, pulling our community together is the whole point of these series,” said Reynolds. “Reading gives us a chance to reach out to each other, share ideas, and understand one another.”

For more information about “Two Books, One Community: The Great Gatsby and Fire in Beulah,” visit http://library.stillwater.org/TheBeesKnees.php.

This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. The opening night speakeasy is not sponsored by the NEA. Other funding partners include the Stillwater Public Library Trust, Friends of the Stillwater Public Library and Friends of OSU Library. Additional community partners include African American Student Association, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc, City of Stillwater Community Center, Downtown Stillwater, OK Quality Printers, Oklahoma Wondertorium Museum, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, NAACP, Stillwater Public Schools, and Town and Gown Community Theatre.