Alva Review-Courier -

'Listen' tells stories of the Great Depression in Oklahoma

• The Castle on the Hill is a prominent feature


What was life like in northwestern Oklahoma during the Great Depression? In his new book, Sheldon Russell gives readers vignettes of ordinary people with diverse philosophies and experiences. The subjects range from a crusty jailer who has a soft spot for his prisoners to a garbage man with exceptional physical strength who cheerfully deals with others refuse. There's the nattily dressed gentleman who hides his real feelings, a young woman who secretly paints her way to peace, and a widow of a certain age who feels invisible.

Russell draws out these intriguing stories in the guise of Liam Walker, a college graduate who takes a temporary position with the Federal Writers Project of the WPA (Works Progress Administration). Assigned to write profiles of common working people, Walker arrives in Atlas, a small town in hot, dry northwest Oklahoma. As he walks from the train station, Liam's gaze is drawn to a magnificent castle positioned on a hill to the south. This "Castle on the Hill" is the home of the recently opened state normal college, and it will play a significant role in his future.

Interviewing a variety of townspeople, Liam meets Eden Sawyer, a young hardworking woman with secret dreams of becoming an artist. In addition, he meets Hattie Cooper, an ambitious young career woman mapping out her future business success. He finds himself drawn to both women, and they come to represent two disparate paths for his future.

As he spends more time in the town, Liam uncovers well-hidden secrets, ambitions and passions. Jealousy threatens his future with one woman as the other reveals her true self. Liam finds himself faced with life-altering decisions. Will he choose a promising career in his chosen field or turn in a completely different direction? Will he and the woman of his dreams survive to enjoy a future together?

"Listen" is a new book by Dr. Sheldon Russell due to be published April 11. Russell is known for setting his stories in the familiar area of northwest Oklahoma where he grew up. His descriptions of the locale are spot on, and Atlas bears a striking resemblance to Alva in that time period including a castle on the hill.

About the Author

Russell is the author of 13 books and perhaps best known for his Hook Runyon mystery series. His work has twice won the Oklahoma Book Award for Fiction, as well as the Langum Prize for Historical Literature. On April 22, he will be honored with the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2023 Oklahoma Book Awards in Oklahoma City.

He's received starred reviews in both Booklist and Publishers Weekly. "The Insane Train" was selected as one of the six best mysteries of 2010 by Publishers Weekly. "A Forgotten Evil" won the 2020 Spur Award for Best Western Historical Novel, Western Writers of America. "A Particular Madness" was selected as a Spur Award Finalist for Best Western Contemporary Novel of 2022.

Russell says realistically he can write new material effectively for about four hours a day. Beyond that he gets diminishing returns in terms of the quality. The remainder of the day is devoted to editing, planning, reading or just taking a nap. "For me, consistency, doing my fours of new material every day, reaps more benefits than trying to sustain my writing for too long," he said.

In "Listen" you'll find more focus on female characters than is usual in Russell's books. "What I've discovered is that the readers of the world are primarily women. I write books, and I want readers who enjoy what I write, so I've consciously tried to up my game here," he said. "In this particular book, for instance, I've included more women characters and in distinct kinds of roles, including villains, older women and business women. I've made a special effort to see the world through their eyes and through their experiences. Have I succeeded? I don't know. I can't literally see the world through their eyes, but I want to. I believe it's possible. I write about all kinds of people whose experiences are different than mine, so why not?"

Asked about his favorite childhood book, Russell replied with a story. "Okay, so I'm in the eighth grade, and I get sent to detention in the study hall, aka the library, for talking. It was the person behind me who caused it, of course. I was innocent. Bored, I started reading some of the books and discovered "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer". I loved it, so I read "Huck Finn" and everything else I could find by Twain.

"It changed my life. I later had the chance to take a trip through the south. I climbed a tree that overlooked the Mississippi River and relived those books."

Growing up on a cattle ranch in the Gloss Mountains of Oklahoma has given Russell insight into the power of place and man's capacity for good and evil. His was a storytelling culture, a culture of humor and of hard times. A passion for narrative and history was inevitable. Russell and his wife, Nancy, a sculptor, currently reside on the home ranch in Waynoka. Hobbies and interests include reading, collecting books and gardening.

Russell's books are available from Cynren Press at and other booksellers online. You'll also find many of his books at Graceful Arts Gallery in Alva. "Listen" is scheduled for publication April 11 and available now for preorder.


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