Rilla Askew was laying the groundwork for the follow-up to her acclaimed novel “Harpsong” when House Bill 1804, Oklahoma's anti-illegal immigration law, took effect on Nov. 1, 2007. She soon discovered that, whether she wanted it or not, her mind had turned a page. A new and different story needed to be told.
“And then I woke up one morning with a voice talking in my head,” said Askew, who will sign copies and read from her new novel, “Kind of Kin,” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Full Circle Bookstore.
That voice belonged to 10-year-old Dustin, one of the lead characters in “Kind of Kin,” a novel about one southeast Oklahoma family's intensely personal relationship with a piece of sweeping legislation. But “Kind of Kin” is not about HB 1804. Askew said she did not want to saddle the story with the specifics of real politics and its players, and ultimately, “Kind of Kin” is about fictional people experiencing the fallout from a hot-button law.
“I didn't set out, from my own perspective, to write a novel about it — I had no intention of writing a novel about the law,” Askew said. “I was concerned on a personal level, always paying a great deal attention to who we are as Oklahomans and what we do as Oklahomans. And, consequently, what our laws are: how we present ourselves to the nation and to ourselves.”
In the book, Robert John Brown is arrested for harboring migrant workers shortly after passage of fictional HB 1830, and state Rep. Monica Moorehouse is pushing a new bill that would allow for the confiscation of property owned by people like Bob Brown who are arrested under provisions of that freshly enacted law. The churchgoing grandfather is hardly the picture of criminality, and his incarceration becomes a case study in modern civil disobedience with an eye toward Christian good will and charity.
The situation is further complicated by the disappearance of young Dustin after his grandfather's incarceration; the plight of Dustin's half-sister, Misty Dawn, who is married to an illegal worker who was caught up in the sweep of Bob Brown's property; and the many spiraling problems of Sweet Kirkendall, Bob's daughter, who is trying to hold the family together as the new law impacts them on multiple fronts.
“I think the challenge for any novelist who has passions about particular issues is to write a novel that is not a polemic and does not become issue-driven and have a short shelf life because of it,” Askew said. “The reason we write novels and tell stories is character. It is about character and story, and that's really all the reader cares about. I do think it is a challenge — always — to not let the theme dominate the book and destroy the novel.