A book review from BPL team member, Jeff.
It feels necessary to start this review with a disclaimer: I have never been to Oklahoma City (OKC), nor do I have any family roots or any ties whatsoever to Oklahoma. I first heard about Boom Town from an interview with the author, Sam Anderson, on Zach Lowe’s basketball podcast, The Lowe Post. (Another disclaimer: you don’t need to be a basketball fan to enjoy this book).
The “boom” in Boom Town takes on a number of roles throughout this book: in one instance, literal sonic booms as a result from supersonic flight. In one of the book’s most entertaining chapters, Anderson describes Operation Bongo. In the 1960s, the U.S. government wanted to test supersonic flights, or more specifically, the effects of repeated sonic booms and the disruptions they cause to human lives. Oklahoma City, with its need for commerce and desire for relevance, happily agreed to become the site for these tests and Operation Bongo was born. The results are equal parts amusing and awful.
The main significance of “boom” in Boom Town, however, is that of boom and bust. It’s the idea of balancing meticulous planning and the love of the process with chasing something glamorous and immediate. This narrative thread ties the book together and is the lens that just about every aspect of OKC history is viewed through. From the chaotic “Land Run” that birthed the city and the tornadoes that threaten to upend its very existence, to Sam Presti, the scrupulous, bespectacled General Manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who has carefully constructed one of the best franchises in basketball and given the city a much needed source of civic pride.
Oklahoma City is not without its share of tragedies, both self-inflicted and otherwise. It is unfortunately unsurprising to learn of the city’s history of displacing both the Native and Black populations. However, as Anderson points out, OKC tends to cultivate particularly tenacious citizens such as Clara Luper, a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement whose nonviolent sit-in protests led to the desegregation of many OKC establishments. And sadly, the people of Oklahoma City were subjected to the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in U.S. history during the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building.
And yet, the city mourned and rebuilt. Throughout its 100+ year history, Oklahoma City has struggled with its sometimes misguided, perpetually optimistic dream of becoming a first-rate American city. Today, it finally resembles the bustling metropolis so many of its residents fantasized about.
As an outsider to the city, Sam Anderson treats the history of Oklahoma City with curiosity, and depending on the situation, skepticism or reverence. In Boom Town, Anderson has crafted a thoroughly engaging, wide-ranging history of a city that truly encapsulates the breadth of the American experience.
Recommended for fans of U.S. history, basketball, and easily readable non-fiction in general.