This post was written by OK Policy intern Carly Putnam. Carly is an undergraduate at the University of Tulsa majoring in Sociology and Women’s & Gender Studies. She can be found on Twitter at @CarlyPutnam.
It’s rare to find a novel set in Oklahoma; it’s rarer still to find a novel set in Oklahoma that actually feels like Oklahoma, with all of its quirks, dangers, and beauty. Author Rilla Askew is Oklahoman herself and it shows; Kind of Kin is funny, poignant, and very smart, deftly describing the fallout of state politics in a small (but fierce) Oklahoma town.
Kind of Kin was inspired by Oklahoma’s HB 1804, signed into law in 2007, which made it a felony to harbor undocumented immigrants (we analyzed HB 1804 here). HB 1804 was considered the nation’s most far-reaching immigration reform law until Arizona passed its own immigration reform in 2010. Although HB 1804 initially created widespread panic in the state’s Latino community, the alarm subsided as its effects proved less disruptive than initially feared.
The novel is set in an Oklahoma where a thinly-fictionalized version of HB 1804 is vigorously enforced, and follows an interconnected band of imperfect but largely lovable Oklahomans struggling with the impact. When the character Sweet learns that a beloved local restaurant has closed in response to the new law, she begins to realize that the abstract “illegals” the law targets are in fact part of the comfortable, everyday landscape of her town:
Surely this didn’t mean the folks from Abuelita’s? They’d been here for years… They couldn’t be illegal; they were fixtures – they belonged here as much as, well, as much as Indians or somebody. Why would they just up and leave?
“On account of that law,” the girl said, as if answering Sweet’s thoughts. “Larry says they aim to run every Mexican in this state back to Texas.”
Even the book’s antagonist – an ambitious state legislator who moved to Oklahoma and ran for office to further her national career – has sympathetic moments. When marooned in the town of McAlester by an ice storm, her loathing of the winter weather is entirely relatable:
She glared through [the window] at the low dark ranch-style catty-corner across the street. No lights inside. Peaceable Road was peaceable all right – excruciatingly so. No passing cars. No street sanders, of course. Nothing but dead ice-spangled grass, the gleaming leafless twigs of the crape myrtle beside the window, the glittering shards streaming down in the streetlight. She could be stuck in McAlester till who even knew when.
The novel’s setting plays as much a role in the novel as its characters, and in fact largely directs the characters’ actions: their humor, pigheadedness, and tremendous capacity to adapt are derived directly from the Oklahoman landscape that most of the characters have known all their lives. With its sympathetic characters, engaging plot, and smart, rollicking tone, Kind of Kin is a wholly captivating read.
Do you have a favorite Oklahoma novel or author? Let us know in the comments – or tell us about it in a guest post.