”Oleanders in June” by Whitney Vandiver, Northern Pines Press, 2019, $17
There have always been hurricanes in Galveston — and there always will be. And there have been many books on The Great Storm of 1900, and there will be more. Yet, none as detailed or intimate as found in the 574 pages of “Oleanders in June” by Whitney Vandiver.
Vandiver provides an almost day-by-day story of several Galvestonians’ lives from May through September 1900, the month of The Great Storm, teasing out political, personal and business issues of the day.
While the author took some fictional liberties, including the leading character, she used real people to tell the tale of the catastrophic hurricane, The Great Storm. Names known to any IBC (Islander By Choice) or BOI (Born On the Island); Dr. Isaac Cline, his brother, Joseph; Julius Runge, Col. Moody, Ike Kempner and Bettie Brown. Characters created to tell the story, represent a composite of cornucopia of cultures except contributions of African Americans.
The story begins and is told through Alfred Ridgeway, the new Assistant Observer at the Galveston U.S. Weather Bureau Station. Having just arrived from a stint in the Signal Corps after being raised on a farm in Indian Territory, he provides a newcomer’s view of all that is Galveston at its peak.
The author uses the vehicle of daily life in a typical boarding house. It’s home to Alfred and two medical students, one pompous and arrogant; the other with a secret life who also serves as a guide for Alfred. Mrs. Poplar, owner and widow of Dr. Poplar, a renowned medical professor, is a true house mother to the “boys.” Much of the story is told around the breakfast table, including delicious details of the food and the character’s lives.
The book’s specificity travels with Alfred as he begins his job within the contentious Cline brothers weather station. The author carefully portrays the hourly routine necessary to attempt to predict the weather. Included is the political prejudices and centralized operational philosophy of the D.C. headquarters, which contributes to the lack of warning.
Description continues in the dating ritual manners. Alfred stumbles until assisted by his friend from the boarding house, Mathias Ortiz, and the motherly figure, Mrs. Poplar. The lovely and talented, Florence, clearly a social class above him, is the focus of his romantic adventures. Adventures culminate in an unexpected outcome, till one understands the social impact of the storm on families.
Alfred’s part-time job as an aide to a wealthily naturalist leads him to a confrontation with the founders of the Deep Water Committees’ efforts to deepen the channel. A proposed seawall is dismissed by Dr. Cline, and most believe a major hurricane will never hit Galveston. Of course, they were wrong.
In this Michener-worthy effort, the author, through individual characters, offers a compelling account, and an epilogue provides links to the challenges we still face. In this dramatized version, there’s much to enjoy and learn. And, after all, it has been a hot summer.