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Reading My Way Across America: Basketball Under the Big Sky

I haven’t been doing a ton of reading for fun lately, with grading, research, and dissertation-writing taking up most of my time, but I have managed to finish a few books this semester. In addition to being a stellar read, this book gave me a really interesting and fun idea. But I’ll get to that after this review.

Full Court Quest: The Girls from Fort Shaw Indian School, Basketball Champions of the World by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith is an in-depth look at an extraordinary situation and group of people who have been almost lost to history and memory. Peavy and Smith navigate the reader through life at Fort Shaw, an Indian boarding school in Montana. Fort Shaw was among the institutions set up by the government in order to “civilize” Native Americans in a movement that was later regarded as a cultural failure. However, during the school’s heyday at the turn of the twentieth century, the new sport of basketball took hold in the heart of Josephine Langley, a Native American herself who had been educated on the East Coast. She brought the game back with her to Montana and added it to the physical education regime of the school. It was popular among the students, especially a group of girls who were exceptionally skilled at it, so much so that in the few years Fort Shaw fielded a team, against high schools and colleges from around Montana, the girls lost only once. In addition to playing basketball, they would also perform their own musical entertainment, read poetry, perform tableaus, and ballroom dance with local boys; all in one night. When word of this amazing team spread, they were sent to St. Louis in 1904, where they became part of the Native American exhibits along with Geronimo and others at the World’s Fair.

Along with all the other innovations of the World’s Fair, national and international athletic competitions emerged, reviving the Olympics. In that same spirit, the Fort Shaw girls supplemented their exhibition games at the Fair with a tournament against local high schools. Emerging undefeated against any team they faced, they were declared World Champions and presented with a silver trophy which they took back with them to their school. This level of interaction between Native Americans and white people was highly uncommon and actually revolutionary for the time, and it succeeded in changing many peoples’ preconceived notions about Indians. Even the mainstream media took notice, referring to the team initially with racially-motivated descriptions which got less and less stereotypical, until they were described in the newspapers just as any other team – evolving from “dusky maidens” to “Indians” to just “talented girl basketball players,” earning respect on small and large stages.

The book goes into detail about the early lives of the players, who came together from different tribes across Montana and Idaho to Fort Shaw, working together as sisters in sport. The initial five, assembled by Josephine Langley in 1903, were Belle Johnson, a Piegan; Emma Sansaver, a Chippewa-Cree; Minnie Burton, a Lower Shoshone; and Genie Butch and Nettie Wirth, both Assiniboine. Accompanying them to St. Louis in 1904 were their classmates Genevieve Healy, a Gros-Venture; Flora Lucero, a Chippewa; Rose LaRose, a Shoshone-Bannock; and Sarah Mitchell and Katie Snell, both Assiniboine. They ranged in age from 15 to 19 years old. Together, these ten were unmatched in ability among other girls their age and even girls older than them. At the Fair, they would play exciting, fast-paced exhibition scrimmages, five-on-five, to huge crowds, just like NBA superstars. After the Fair, they returned to Fort Shaw, and eventually parted ways as the school closed only six years later, in 1910.

What I loved about the book were the descriptions of the intense basketball games, and the girls’ relationships with one another and their own identities. Their journey across Montana through North Dakota and the Midwest to St. Louis, and their eye-opening experiences at the World’s Fair, were definitely the most interesting sections of the book. It was as if they were learning as much about the world as the world was learning about them. Even though we get some insight into the girls’ personalities, the first half of the book gets bogged down in details of the girls’ early lives, pre-Fort Shaw, as well as the lives of the superintendent and creator of the school, who was not Native American. When they start talking about the games, the book really picks up, and despite being non-fiction, keeps an exciting narrative all the way through the girls’ return to Fort Shaw from St. Louis.

What happened to the girls afterwards, though, was mostly disheartening with a few bright spots. Although one of them Nettie Wirth, was honored at the World’s Fair in 1962, and another, Genevieve Healy, lived until the age of 93, dying in 1981 as the last survivor of the team, most of them died in their thirties-fifties, including one under “questionable circumstances” and one who was unable to be tracked down entirely. Even sadder was the life of Minnie Burton, one of the team’s superstars (known for her shooting skills, so much so that spectators would chant “shoot, Minnie, shoot!”), who, although she did live to see many children and grandchildren, never spoke of her experience (imagine their surprise when they found out their grandmother was the LeBron James of the early twentieth century!) Fortunately for us, though, and for the authors, who found out about the girls from a team photo in a Montana archive, Emma Sansaver kept a journal and boxes of memories, which she passed down to her children and grandchildren, keeping the story from fading away into history. The authors did a mind-boggling amount of research for this book, contacting descendants of all ten of the players and people who knew them, ensuring that their legacy would live on.

Overall, I learned a ton about one of American history’s most unlikely and underrated footnotes, from a place I’ve neither been to nor even heard of. What these girls from the middle of nowhere did was groundbreaking, and even though all that’s left of Fort Shaw is an arch and a monument of a basketball – not even a museum – I’d still like to go visit it someday.

The idea that this sparked? Well, I had heard of this book and had it on my list for a little while, and ended up finding it in the Historical Society Library, where books are catalogued by country, region, and state. Finding it in the Montana section led me to want to read more from that section, and the Historical Society Library as a whole, with hopes to find more unusual but fascinating historical footnotes. I’m not sure how long I can keep up with this, but I’m going to try to find one historical hidden gem from each state. Now that Montana’s down, I’ve got 49 states to go, and rather than go in a specific order, I’ll ask Siri to give me a number between 1 and 50, and pick states that way.

As I typed that, I did that, and it gave me 7 – so Maryland, my home state, I guess I’ll be in your section tomorrow afternoon.

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Ghost Fleet? Spooky!

(in case you doesn’t get that joke, just listen to the bonus track on the [title of show] album)

HI.

So.

I actually finished a book the other day. Despite today being the last day of September, I think it was just the second or third book I finished. I found it on the Maryland shelf in the Wisconsin Historical Society library stacks, and it’s actually inspired me to want to a) read more books on the history of my home state and b) maybe even read a nonfiction book on the history of every state.

More on that later, but first, a recap of the adventure that lies within the pages of Donald H. Shomette’s Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay.

In a nutshell, Ghost Fleet explores a small part of the Chesapeake Bay near the town of Nanjemoy, Maryland, which is home to an inordinate number of shipwrecks at a remarkably easy-to-access location. The chapters go between various topics. My favorites were Shomette’s fascinating descriptions of the contents of the sunken ships, the ways that current Americans were mapping the ships on the sea floor, and his unexpectedly humorous interactions with former Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer AKA “Willie Don” on a guided tour of the area of the shipwrecks. Schaefer ended up being so fascinated that he practically catapulted money towards ship preservation in Maryland, which came as a surprise.

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Oh, What a Lovely War

Has it really been almost a whole month since I’ve posted? It seems like That’s So Jacob is turning into something akin to a monthly blog, judging my summer posting pattern…

Things are just chugging along at my end. The weather is staying kind, even if the mosquitoes are not, and I’m attempting to keep up with all of my TAship responsibilities.

I did, however, finish a book this month, finally. And it only took me until September 20th but I did it. Names on a Map by Benjamin Alire Saenz, done.

Image result for names on a map by benjamin alire saenz

Names on a Map tells the story of the Mexican-American Espejo family, who are living in El Paso, Texas in 1967, with the Vietnam War looming over their existence. The story is told mostly from the perspectives of young adult twins Gustavo, a rebellious pacifist, and Xochil, who is trying to take control of her life. They live with their parents, Octavio and Lourdes; their younger brother, the westernized Charlie; and their grandmother, Rosario, who dies 3/4 of the way through the book and spurs Gustavo’s main actions. In addition, a side narrative occurs in Da Nang, where Adam and Abe are fighting, although their connections with the Espejo family seem rather slim, other than Adam referencing having met Xochil one time in El Paso.

Mostly, the book revolves around the main characters’ relationships with the wars going on both in Vietnam and in their own lives. We find out that Xochil was raped as a young girl, and that Gustavo is attempting to dodge the draft because of a previous disillusionment with violence. In between the twins is Jack Evans, a white, Vietnam-bound schoolmate of theirs who is a former friend of Gustavo’s and a current boyfriend of Xochil’s. He seems to embody all that is the opposite of Gustavo, from white privilege to American machismo, as he faces off against Gustavo and convinces Xochil to “make him a man.” What is interesting about that relationship is that even though Gustavo is devastated once he finds out that Xochil and Jack Evans sneaked away to do the deed, Jack Evans doesn’t come out on top, as Xochil explains to him that she wanted to avenge her rapist on her own terms, and has no intention of marrying Jack now or after he comes back from Vietnam. As Xochil leaves Jack Evans behind, so does Gustavo to America, escaping over the border to Mexico.

Even though the plot is difficult to follow at times and goes in so many different directions, the writing is so poetic and you really get a feel for what this family and the people around them endured in such a turbulent time in America, when lines were drawn in the sand, and twice as deep for minorities such as Mexican-Americans.

I had never heard of this book or its author before I plucked it off the shelf of the Madison Public Library, but it will definitely not be the only Benjamin Alire Saenz novel I read. I’ve already picked up another for my never-ending pile of books.

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A and B C the Coast

I’ve actually been rocking and rolling through books this summer, and this one’s a good one. I actually sat at the Hubbard Avenue Diner for over two hours finishing it, and was nearly in tears by the end. It was a random pluck from the shelves at the bookstore, Allie and Bea by Catherine Ryan Hyde.

Allie and Bea: A Novel by [Hyde, Catherine Ryan]

Cover photo (Amazon.com)

I expected it to be a sweet and sappy story, a la Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult. It was, and yet it wasn’t. Before reading Allie and Bea I was not familiar with Catherine Ryan Hyde but I’ve already gotten another of her books out from the library.

This book is a Thelma and Louise story for the twenty-first century. It starts when Bea, an elderly widow from Southern California who is out of luck and out of money after falling victim to a scammer. She packs her cat and a few possessions in her van, and drives away from her old life with no real destination. Meanwhile, not far away, fifteen-year-old Allie’s luxurious life collapses when her parents are arrested for tax fraud and she is sent to a group home. With the help of a friend who turns out to be not such a good friend, Allie escapes the group home and winds up on the side of the road. In desperation, she throws herself in front of Bea’s van in the middle of the night, hoping to attract her attention. Bea agrees to let her spend the night with her in the van, but after hearing Allie’s story and getting to know her, ends up letting her stay, as her unlikely travel companion. Together, they travel north through California, Oregon, and Washington, learning more about each other, themselves, and what has been missing from their lives. Their past (well, Allie’s at least) catches up with them in the end, but it turns out neither predictably nor completely absurdly.

This book kept me captivated right from the start. Hyde does a great job describing places and situations, and her characters are special; not perfect, in fact quite flawed, but they’re the kinds of characters you sort of dislike in the beginning but turn out to root for in the end, and not in a forced way. Bea seemed like a grouch in the beginning, and Allie seemed to bee too perfect, but as the book went on, their characters developed in a way that made them more alike than different. Their adventures on the road were fun and unpredictable, and in a way, it was a journey of healing, the further they got from Los Angeles and the more people they got to know and places they got to experience, from the twisty roads of the Oregon coast to the rocky shores of Washington state.

The ending was probably the best part. I won’t tell you what happens, but I’ll tell you what doesn’t happen. One predictable ending: Bea and Allie betray each other and part ways, never to see each other again. Second, even more predictable ending: Bea becomes so endeared with Allie that when the feds catch up to them, she adopts her and they legally become a family. Neither of these things happen, which is really refreshing. The ending is a mix of sad and happy, but overall provides a satisfying close to their adventure.

Oh, and third predictable ending: Bea and Allie don’t die in a fiery car crash or soar into the Grand Canyon.

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Carry On, My Wayward Daughter

A minor spoiler, but then again, wasn’t everything about this book a minor spoiler? I finally finished a book after a long time of reading bits and pieces, and this one was Don’t You Cry, a contemporary thriller by Mary Kubica.

Cover photo: Amazon.com

So this book starts with a small mystery – the mystery of how I got a copy.

Well, I know how I got it – in the mail from paperbackswap.com a few weeks ago – but why I had to have a copy right away? No idea. And why I read it right away? Again, no idea. But I read it anyway.

Don’t You Cry is a contemporary thriller told from two points of view. In Chicago, Quinn Collins wakes up one morning to find that her roommate Esther is missing, and in Michigan, recent high school graduate Alex Gallo works a dead-end food service job to support himself and his alcoholic father in a small lakeside town where nothing happens, which changes one day when a mysterious woman shows up at the cafe where he works. She becomes the object of his fantasy, and he calls her “Pearl” because of a pearl bracelet she wears. While Quinn discovers that Esther may not have been who she said she was, and possibly even a murderer, Alex gets closer to the strange but attractive Pearl, who squats in an abandoned house across the street from Alex’s. Revealing much more would spoil the book for you, but the big reveal brings up almost as many questions as it answers.

I had mixed feelings about this book. It definitely wasn’t your typical mystery. I thought it might end up veering towards chick-lit, but it surprisingly didn’t; one of the two main points of view was male. I did want to keep reading, if only to find out how Quinn’s and Alex’s stories intersected, which doesn’t happen until the last chapter or so, but at least something about it kept me interested. The language was interesting; it seemed like Kubica got quite a lot of use out of her thesaurus, and some of the words the characters used didn’t seem to fit with what a twenty-something and a teenager’s vocabulary would be like. In addition, there were so many things brought up that turned out to be dead-ends/red herrings, and it seemed like some of the answers to the clues were awfully arbitrary, like the Kelsey Bellamy storyline and the Ben storyline. Finally, the end. I don’t think I’ve ever been as annoyed by a character’s death as I was at Carmen’s at the end of Bel Canto, but suffice it to say that one of the main characters dies for no reason at all. Overall, while I don’t think I’ll read another Mary Kubica book anytime soon, I’ll put her remaining books on the maybe pile for now.

If anyone can figure out what website or book blog or list suggested this to me, let me know.