Talking Location With author Charlotte Rixon – Newcastle
Novel set in Oklahoma, USA (“The Wind comes right behind the rain”)
3rd September 2013
Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew, novel set in Oklahoma.
The text of House Bill 1804 or, to give it its proper name, the ‘Oklahoma Taxpayers and Citizens Protection Act of 2007’ might come as a bit or a shock to anyone whose prior knowledge of Oklahoma was simply that it is the place where ‘the wind comes right behind the rain’ (Oklahoma, the Musical).
In 2007, Oklahoma was the first US State to pass strict local immigration laws because it did not feel that enough was being done by the federal government initially to control movement across the Mexican border, and then to enforce laws to prevent access to employment for illegals. It became an offence to harbor or in any way aid an ‘undocumented worker’ – and provided for the deportation back to the Mexican border of anyone illegally in the State (whether or not they had actually come from Mexico in the first place!). Spot checks based on racial profiling were, and are, prevalent.
This is the context in which Rilla Askew’s extremely well written and researched latest book, Kind of Kin, is set. Ms Askew is an Oklahoman who clearly loves her State, its people, and a great deal of what they stand for. The essential dilemma of her book is the contradiction many experience between their Christian beliefs (‘welcome the stranger’) and their desire to be law abiding citizens. Bob Brown, the father and grandfather of two of the main characters, helps immigrant workers hide in his barn – and is then described as ‘a Christian and a felon – and a felon because he is a Christian’.
There is a good and well described range of characters. Bob Brown, the born again Christian, his daughter Sweet who struggles to hold a dysfunctional family together, her son Carl Albert, her nephew Dustin, her husband Terry. Plus her niece, Misty Dawn, and her ‘illegal’ husband Juanito. Plus Luis, an ‘undocumented worker’ who escaped the raid on the barn. And, representing the less sympathetic viewpoint, the carpet bagging Monica Moorehouse focused on driving the Act through the Legislature to her greater glory – and Logan Morgan, a local TV news reporter, whose key purpose in life is to make sure the unfolding events take place on a time schedule that makes certain she stars on the 6.00PM news. Finally there is Arvin Holloway, the bullying and egocentric sheriff who was as unpleasant a child as he has turned out to be as an adult.
The book is set in real places that exist in South East Oklahoma – the descriptions of Wilburton (population 2,843) and Latimer County (11,155) ring very true of small town America. Attitudes, positive and negative, towards the illegals have echoes of 40 years earlier when the culture clash was then between black and white. In many ways Kind of Kin reads as a contemporary novel that is set in the past – it does not always feel like a book of the 21st century.
Ms Askew has a real personal interest in the storyline of the book. Her niece married an ‘undocumented’ of Mexican origin who had grown up in the States. He was arrested for a minor traffic offence in Tulsa – and then deported to Mexico… being told that he would have to join a twelve year line to get back into the US. She does, though, absolutely not preach against the legislation – but rather, in the book, takes a very balanced position between understanding the reasons for the Act being in place – and the impact it inevitably has on lives at a very human level. Her characters also manage to point out that being for or against the Act is not a straightforward class or political decision. The richest (right wing) industrialist in Oklahoma is against the Bill because of the effect it will have on his labour costs – and many otherwise conservative citizens are also against the Bill because they know, and have grown up with, ‘undocumented workers’ and their families – and see them as integral parts of their communities.
All in all, a very good read that sympathetically explores one of the very major social issues of modern America.
Tony for the TripFiction Team