Martha’s Vineyard Basketball

Slightly adapted from the review I just posted on Goodreads . . .

MV Basketball coverNo, I’m not a sports fan, but my fascination with the Vineyard and anything related to race and class is insatiable, so I had such hopes for this book. Class is a shifty thing on Martha’s Vineyard. It doesn’t look like what one reads about in textbooks or sees in urban areas. Here, as elsewhere in the U.S., we bend over backwards to avoid seeing it. It’s complicated by the distinction between the year-round population and the “summer people”; by the ethnic groups with deep roots here (especially Wampanoag, Anglo, Portuguese, and Cape Verdean); and by the long history of African Americans on the island.

What a great idea, I thought: to explore “notions of race and class” by focusing on basketball, specifically the summer basketball program that started in 1970. Basketball does bring together people from a variety of backgrounds, women as well as men (and not only as spectators), and the tight focus might make manageable complex subjects that otherwise tend to sprawl out of control.

Unfortunately, Bijan C. Bayne’s Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race and Class (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) doesn’t deliver. The raw material is there, especially the interviews with participants, and most especially those with Coach Jay Schofield and the several participants quoted at length in the “Coming of Age” chapter near the end of the book.

What isn’t there is a coherent narrative, a path for the reader to follow through the thicket of names, dates, and anecdotes. The book jumps back and forth between the 1970s, the ’90s, and the present, and between the Vineyard and the various urban neighborhoods where some of the participants spent their winters.

It deals almost as much with the basketball program at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School as with the summer basketball activities at “The Courts” at Oak Bluffs’ Niantic Park.

It veers off on tangents like Senator Ted Kennedy’s famous mishap on Chappaquiddick (1969) and the filming of Jaws (1974). Not only do these things have little to do with basketball, they play into common stereotypical notions of what the Vineyard is, or was, about. Despite his long relationship with the Vineyard, Bayne generally sees it as off-islanders and summer people see it.

And the book frequently gets bogged down in the scoring and rebounding stats from games that took place 20 and 40 years ago. Momentous as these might have been at the time, they loom much smaller when this much time has passed.

This book desperately needed an editor. Two editors: one to work with the author on structure, then one to focus on words, sentences, and paragraphs. Someone should have noticed that West Chop is not in Oak Bluffs and that the ferry Scamanchi‘s name was not spelled like that. (Schamonchi, anyone?). And, once the manuscript was complete and the page proofs ready, a proofreader. No editors are mentioned in the acknowledgments. Was the book professionally edited at all?

Being an editor and writer myself, I can’t help offering a couple of suggestions, even though it’s too late to make this book what it could have been. At the top of the list: Use the title and subtitle as a guide. There are four big topics here: Martha’s Vineyard, basketball, race, and class. Develop each one separately, then braid them together. As it is, we get some basketball history and some glimpses of the Vineyard before 1970. The history of African Americans on the Vineyard doesn’t come up till chapter 6, and class isn’t discussed at all. What, exactly, are these “notions of race and class” that the summer basketball program defied?

In the process, some major themes would emerge, among them basketball as a rite of passage and performance space; the importance of coaches and peers in transmitting values to young people; the contrast between summers then and summers now, especially from a kid’s point of view; and the importance of friendship, especially across race, class, and seasonal lines.

Then I might look for two or three individuals whose experience over the decades could provide both a narrative thread and a distinct personality for readers to follow. As it is, those with some Vineyard experience are going to love finding familiar names in the text (I did!), but outsiders are likely to be dizzied by the sheer number of names — a little like dipping into the sports section of a newspaper when you aren’t a sports fan. Coach Schofield and the author himself are the most likely candidates.

Then I’d send the author home to organize the wealth of detail in this book into the coherent narrative it could have been.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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5 Responses to Martha’s Vineyard Basketball

  1. bijanc says:

    And Helen: Kennedy/Chappy is in the book for a number of reasons. The deputy who identified Teddy’s car, told the judge at the inquest, he was certain of the license # because it included his uniform # when he played h.s. basketball on the Island. Edgartown Police Chief Jim Arena was also an Island player. And it is there because the changes of the Island, including some that altered the degree of tourism and national interest are covered in that segment of the book. There are similar reasons, among them involvement of basketball figures, for the presence of “JAWS”. The summer league’s heyday, and the filming and release of “JAWS”, were not only simultaneous, but many interviewees’ lives were touched by both. And MVRHS’ two most hallowed boys’ teams, played during that period. The topics, for mid-70’s Island kids, are inseparable (as the ’68 riots would be to a late ’60’s D.C. child, e.g.).

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  2. bijanc says:

    Thank you for the review. A good number of native Islanders do weigh on on what the Island was like when I was not there (winters). You even allow there is as much material about MVRHS as there is summer league. As for editing and proofing, once Rowman, Littlefield went back and forth on errors, revisions and questions, the work goes to the company’s page proofer. (e.g., I did attempt to spell check “Schamonchi” via a ferry schedule).

    Though there is no entire chapter devoted to Blacks until the sixth, native interviewees such as Amaury Bannister, Crumpy Heathman, Jay Schofield and Ralph Robinson discuss it much earlier. All the ethnic groups you cite are women throughout the narrative, and the readers is informed of the most populous groups a page in. As for class, it is mentioned throughout, from Ralph’s teen jobs, to Fauteux and Regan’s observations concerning upscale Black vacation kids playing with working class natives. Gaskin also cites how socioeconomic boundaries mattered less on The Courts. We also cover winter joblessness, addiction, and Dukes County poverty stats. So although you state I primarily see the Island as summer people view it, interviews with 8th grade girls and their coaches, Island natives, game action from 40-year old games, and emphasis on unemployment, addiction, and even a murder, from were give from points of view beyond my own. I also interviewed vacationers (thus the “class” notions in the subtitle). The reason there are so many POV’s, rather than just mine and Coach Schofield, is that the Vineyard is many things to many people, filtered through the prism of their own generation, background, athletic involvement, and insight. I also include a lot of names because the Island is small, the topic spans 100 years, and I didn’t wish a vacationers or 1970’s slant.

    The chronological jumps are in part due to subject change, and otherwise, interviewee focus. Almost all the ’90’s observations were mine. I employed other devices because most people I meet do not even think Martha’s Vineyard has a high school, much less team sports (because they can’t imagine whom the kids would play). Those devices are there for those who have no frame of reference for S.E. Mass, the 1970’s, or Black culture. For those reasons, readers have told me they really enjoyed the work.

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  3. Reblogged this on Write Through It and commented:

    Even if you have zero interest in Martha’s Vineyard or basketball, the comments on structural editing might be useful, especially to nonfiction writers. Moral of story: Your research may be impeccable and your sentences reasonably well crafted, but if they aren’t sensibly organized your readers are going to have a hard time getting through it.

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  4. Helen Green says:

    Geez Susanna with a start like that I thought you were going to start talking about the women’s soccer.
    Anyway-thanks for the review I was going to try to read it but now will think the better of it.
    How did he tie Jaws and Kennedy/Chappy in to it, what possible connection was there?

    Liked by 1 person

    • For Kennedy/Chappy the only connection seems to be the Vineyard — and off-island people have heard of it. Some basketball-playing kids and their families were involved in the Jaws filming. The first half of chapter 5, “The Jaws Years,” could have been lifted from or written for a book about the movie. Then we come to this: “The Jaws years coincided with the rise of the Vineyard’s high school girls’ basketball program.” The next several pages are devoted to it. Me, I would have turned it around: “The rise of the Vineyard’s high school girls’ basketball program coincided with the filming of Jaws.” And changed the chapter title.

      Women’s soccer would be a great subject!

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