This post, authored by then-intern Carly Putnam, first ran on our blog on July 25, 2013. It has been updated.
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. The novel deftly describes the fallout of immigration politics in a small (but fierce) Oklahoma town. Competing factions of families, faith communities, local politicians, and the migrants themselves struggle to adjust as forces outside their control shape their worlds.
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.”
The novel was published prior to the influx of unaccompanied children from Central America into the US, but it nonetheless retains its relevance. The heart of the novel is survival – but survival of whom, for whom, and how quickly become fiercely contested issues. Kind of Kin never lets readers forget the human impact of both wide-ranging policies and personal actions as the characters struggle to build better lives for themselves, for their families and communities, and for the state as a whole.
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.