Review: Dust Bowl Girls by Lydia Reeder



“The Boys in the Boat meets A League of Their Own

The Story:

In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the fabled dust bowl was ruining farming in Oklahoma. Incomes were sometimes non-existent. But young women had one interesting outlet for their frustrations: Basketball. A young woman named Mildred “Babe” Didrickson was taking the nation by storm at that time by putting the ball threw the hoop with alarming regularity. But Babe was not the only outstanding basketball player of her day. This book tells the story of the Lady Cardinals of Oklahoma Presbyterian College–a tiny church school and Junior College engaged more in “acculturating” Native American children than in producing star athletes. In fact, the basketball players had to help out at lunch time mentoring Native American children in table manners! We’ll leave that embarrassment for another day. At it’s time it was an acceptable thing to do.

Doll Harris, Coral Worley, Lucille Thurman, Hazel “Vick” Vickers, twins Lera and Vera Dunford, Toka Lee Fields, Alice Hamilton, Ginny Hamilton, Teny Lampson, Buena Harris, Juanita “Bo-Peep” Lassiter , Susie Lorance, Monk Mitchell, Allene West and LaHoma Lassiter had names far more colorful than the country surrounding them in Southeastern Oklahoma. They had only a tiny upstairs gym so they practiced at dawn at a neighboring college. They often had paid jobs, all had to attend church, chapel and Bible Study, and all were there first and foremost to get an education and a better life that that of their farming and ranching parents.

Led by Psychology professor turned coach, Sam Babb, this team would make history playing the more genteel “girls” basketball of the era. 6 players with assigned zones to play in kept the game much, much slower than today’s version. To avoid exhaustion the quarters were of shorter duration than the men’s game, too.  Unlike Michelle Obama, first lady Lou Hoover thought basketball a detriment to a young lady’s moral and physical development and led the group trying to ban the sport. Her committee got most of “girl’s” athletics at the college level demoted to demeaning intramurals and play-dates with other schools–as it mostly still was when was in elementary school 40 years later. It took Title IX to change all of that in the 1970s.

Given the climate of women’s sports then, the college tournament was really an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournament that mixed a few high school teams, some college teams and the commercial and industrial league teams like the Golden Cyclones that Babe Didrikson played for. These women had jobs (or in some cases just an income) to play and represented their company on the basketball court. In an era before television and when every home was still just aspiring to own a radio, these teams–and their male counterparts– were popular. They barnstormed playing whatever teams they could find and arrange a game with.

Babe was the show-stopping star. The Michael Jordan of the commercial leagues. She was a love her or hate her figure. Very mannish in her looks, according to the standards of the day, she lost a lot of my respect after I read the story told in the book of her spitting out the window and keeping track of hits while at a job interview. Yuck. When the ladies of OPC came to town for the tournament no one expected anyone but Babe to be cutting down nets in triumph. You can guess the result.

What I Loved:

I loved that like so many female athletes still today, these women were in college first and foremost to get an education and make a life for themselves. Even though a paid option (and a handsomely paying one at that in many cases) was available to them for sports, they chose to study. While none was presented as overly religious, all followed the rules of behavior set by their coach, their school and society at the time.

The coach, an attractive young professor in a day and age when dating students was seen as normal, kept a boundary that enforced his role as leader and mentor. He did not take advantage of an obvious crush by a star player. He stayed faithful to his own chosen girl friend who was not affiliated with the college.

While this book is set at a Presbyterian College, nothing was said about faith–neither for, nor against. (The book is from a secular press). The girls were recruited as good basketball players. Church attendance and faith were taken as a normal and expected, as were good manners and polite speech. Parents were obeyed as was the coach and all the rules. Girls exhibited unease at breaking a rule about eating sugary foods!!!

What I Disliked:


There was one tiny sentence that made me fear encroaching political correctness, but, happily, it was said in traditional innocence and nothing more. This is a suitable read-aloud of any child interested in sports though young children might be bored as there were no slam dunks  or anything that makes modern NBA and NCAA play so exciting.

It should make a fun movie–I can’t wait to see who will be cast, but I hope they are unknowns or small college basketball players–like so many were in Hoosiers.

You can read more about the author (Basketball coach Sam Babb’s great-niece) and about the Dust Bowl Girls at the author’s website: http://lydiareeder.com/

Rating: 4 solid stars

Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team That Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory by Lydia Reeder

Quote at the start of the post is from the back cover of the book and is unattributed.

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