'Your grandpa is a felon," Sweet Georgia tells her nephew, in the beginning of Rilla Askew's powerful new novel, Kind of Kin, but whether he is "a felon and a Christian" or a "felon because he's a Christian" forces their family, congregation and a transfixed Oklahoma town into a complex journey about the meaning of "strangers" in their community -- and a controversial new immigration law.
Askew's fifth novel jumps into the timely debate over immigration with Grandpa Robert John Brown's "conviction of the heart," written in the rawboned, heartfelt and often funny prose that has defined much of her earlier acclaimed works on the Great Plains. Sidestepping the politics of a carpetbagging state legislator intent on climbing the career ladder of fear-mongering, Askew wonderfully explores the entangled reality of persecuted "aliens that dwell" among of Brown's working class family and their fellow conservative Baptist believers trying to balance the word of the Bible, the law and the shattered pieces of their every day lives.
In the process, when Brown is arrested for harboring undocumented immigrants in his barn, the novel unfolds into a series of interchanging narratives that range from a modern-day Huckleberry Finn tale of innocence to do the right thing to a veritable armed showdown between an overwhelmed sheriff and an unwitting "evangelical sanctuary" movement of sorts. At the center of it all is Brown's somewhat rough-edged daughter Sweet, faced with rescuing her family and coming to terms with a failed marriage and broken relationship with her son, as her young niece holes up with an immigrant without proper papers, and her 10-year-old nephew and another fleeing immigrant are suddenly at large and in the national spotlight.
Far from any tragedy, Askew's beguiling narratives bring the reader into Sweet's brewing conflict like a willing co-conspirator; the author's delight in language abounds on every page, from the seamless bilingual wordplay between the young nephew Dustin and his fugitive new friend Luis to the colloquial exchanges of her characters in a rural Oklahoma hamlet named "Cedar," the resilient softwood found around the world; the toddler of the family's turmoil is aptly named "Lucha," or "struggle" in Spanish.
And just who are these characters that lead an Oklahoma grandpa to defy a judge's contempt, a conservative Baptist preacher to face down a sheriff on the steps of his church, and a bullied 10-year-old boy to flee west for another man's reunion with his Mexican family?
As if on trial herself, the compassionate but torn Sweet must answer these questions, among many unresolved issues in her heart, as she stands outside a closed restaurant:
They'd been here for years, those efficient dark young men who showed you to your seat and motioned somebody to bring the chips and salsa and took your money at the register without ever glancing at a ticket or making a mistake, all the shy silent busboys, the deft young women who took your order and smiled and spoke better English than half of Latimer County. 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 aid, as if answering Sweet's thoughts. "Larry says they aim to run every Mexican in this state back to Texas."
In Askew's expert hands, Sweet's dilemmas are shared by the rest of the town -- and ultimately the readers -- in a tale of clashing values, emotions and powerful forces at stake.
You raise not the child you want but the one you've been given, she hauntingly concludes, in this extraordinary novel -- and the still unfolding debate over immigration today.