Rilla Askew’s new novel, “Kind of Kin,” sneaks over the border of literary fiction to make a case for more compassion in the immigration debate. It’s a timely argument, of course. Even while Mitt Romney was blaming his loss on President Obama’s “gifts,” Republicans agreed that their party must develop a better attitude toward Hispanic voters — current and future. As if to show the way, “Kind of Kin” spotlights a single American family dragged toward social enlightenment.
Askew, who has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, specializes in broad family dramas that often reflect dark corners of our nation’s racial geography. Her first novel, “The Mercy Seat” (1997), is a Cain-and-Abel tale set in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. “Fire in Beulah” (2001) takes place around the Tulsa race riots of 1921. “Kind of Kin” is lighter than those books, but it’s also more polemical.
The story rotates through several points of view, allowing the focus to shift from intimate moments in a country kitchen to policy debates in the national news. Over a period of three weeks in early 2008, a harried wife and mother named Sweet Kirkendall is thrown into a crisis that reorders her life. As the novel opens in Cedar, Okla., population 581, Sweet’s born-again father has been arrested for harboring 14 illegal immigrants in his barn. Offered a chance for bail, he refuses to enter a plea and insists on being a martyr in the fight against a strict new immigration law. “Don’t worry,” he tells Sweet. “All things work together for good to them that love God.” He may know his New Testament, but he doesn’t know what he’s doing to his daughter. His righteous stand not only baffles Sweet but dumps his orphaned grandson, Dustin, on her doorstep. With her husband off working on a gas pipeline, she’s frantic to get her dad out of jail while caring for a bedridden relative at home and trying to keep her son and 10-year-old Dustin from “fighting like heathens.” No wonder she “hadn’t slept a drop.”
These opening chapters are tremendously engaging as Askew whips up chance encounters, misunderstandings and arguments into a rolling tangle of complications. Sweet’s family is torn apart by zealots on both sides of the immigration debate. Her father knows that Jesus wants us to welcome all strangers; her husband is just as sure that these undocumented, low-wage workers are spreading like “fire ants swarming up from Texas.” And in the lives of frightened, enterprising immigrants, we can see the human cost of laws that separate parents, create an underground economy and put poor people at constant risk of exploitation.
It’s also refreshing to see devout Christians led by prayer to act as radical advocates for social justice, instead of their usual role in the liberal imagination as homophobic, child-abusing, gun-toting bigots. (How quickly the Left forgot the church’s role in the civil rights movement.)
But otherwise, “Kind of Kin” is kind of obvious. Much of the story takes place in a fit of domestic hysteria, as though this were a bedroom farce about immigration policy. That disconnect between the novel’s subject and its antic tone begins to grate as the story moves along. Sweet is sympathetic, but the more she carries on with her deep-fat-fried anxieties and her needle-pointed theology, the less interesting she seems. There’s lots of hand-wringing as she adds “another little Lincoln log of guilt” to the long list of her failings. I couldn’t wait for her to emigrate from the 1950s into the modern age.
And yet Sweet is a model of subtlety compared with the anti-
immigrant villains in “Kind of Kin.” First, there’s Sheriff Arvin Holloway, a blusterin’, sputterin’, short-
tempered racist who seems to have wandered out of “Smokey and the Bandit.” He presides over a long, dull confrontation that gobbles up almost a quarter of the novel. And then there’s state Rep. Monica Moorehouse, who’s plotting her march to Washington on the backs of jailed Mexicans. In a series of publicity-hogging announcements, she promotes a plan to move way beyond “self-deportation” and make America as toxic as possible to Mexican workers. We know such cynical political operatives exist — we’ve seen Michele Bachmann in action — but Moorehouse is one of those caricatures meant simply to reassure left-wing folks that they really don’t have anything to learn from people on the right. She darts around the state in her Escalade looking for Mexicans to condemn and cameras to broadcast her doing it. Her only real friend is her hairdresser, who, of course, is gay and, of course, dotes on a small dog.
Some relief from these worn stereotypes comes from chapters narrated by Sweet’s little nephew, Dustin, who’s already suffered the death of his mother and now must figure out why his grandfather wants to stay in jail. He’s a kind boy with a fresh, gentle voice. When he finds a Mexican man who escaped arrest on his grandfather’s farm, the two of them set off on an ill-defined road trip that becomes a national media obsession.
The book’s finest element may be how beautifully Askew represents the fractured English and Spanish that Dustin and his new immigrant friend use to communicate with each other:
“¿Where is this town?”
“I don’t know. Is possible I can say to some person to tell me.”
“¡No! Please. If they know I am here it will go badly for me. For my sons also.”
“I don’t speak nothing, no problem. . . . Tomorrow I bring more food. If I am able. Is difficult. My aunt and my uncle . . . they are living me when my grandfather . . . while my grandfather . . . I don’t know the words. The . . . police take him.”
It’s a graceful method that allows us to read what each of them hears in his own language, without the interruption of parenthetical translations.
Alas, all the ingredients are here for an updated version of T.C. Boyle’s classic novel about immigration, “Tortilla Curtain,” but with its faithful Mexicans praying to the Virgin Mary and its villainous conservatives playing to racist voters, “Kind of Kin” sounds as nuanced as a campaign ad. Hearts and minds are changed within this story, but it’s hard to imagine any being changed by it in the real world.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
KIND OF KIN
By Rilla Askew
Ecco. 417 pp. $25.99