Immigration reform has become a common phrase these days, but it seems we can't agree on a common meaning. In the musically named "Kind of Kin," Rilla Askew's second Oklahoma-based novel, one person interprets it as a plan to "rent one of those airforce jets ... and load a bunch of these spics in and fly out over the ocean and open the doors." The speaker is a constituent of state representative Monica Moorehouse, a Palin-esque creation, so ravenously professional that even her private monologues sound public. When a new law she has pushed through the Capitol results in the arrest of Mexican undocumented workers and several Oklahoma citizens, her internal reaction is, "perfect. ... Now the whole world could see that her law had teeth!"
This is a person who thinks in exclamation points, whose hands you can almost hear rubbing together in diabolical glee. If she seems a one-dimensional villain, it's because Askew, whose intelligent and gripping narrative is told from plenty of conflicting viewpoints, wants her to. Being inside her over-bleached head is a macabre, but fascinating experience. By the end of the book, you may not like Monica Moorehouse, or forgive her, but you will understand how she thinks.
This is a novel about the ways people come to decisions and formulate actions, and what they make of the consequences. As with any book based on characters, it's really a mystery.
If there is a protagonist in this portrait of Oklahoma at a strange moment in time, it is Sweet Kirkendall, whose father, Bob Brown, has been arrested for harboring "illegals." Moorehouse's new law has made doing so a felony, and Brown and a local pastor, Jesus Garcia, are using their incarceration to make a public statement, worrying Brown's already overwhelmed daughter.
Sweet is a character familiar to anyone with a family, dysfunctional or otherwise. Decent, competent, but only human, she's not above complaining at the stress and overwork that being the family's go-to person entails. She's not without her own fear of difference, prejudice and judgment, which makes her a believable product of an actual environment. You not only accept her narrative, you root for her to do the right thing -- not just from the desire to see a happy outcome, but because you want to see a basically decent person become a good one, the same desire we have for ourselves.
Askew's strength as a novelist is just this; through an accretion of believable detail and judgment-free descriptions, she creates characters in whose fate you can't help but become invested. You may start this book out as a "relationship" novel, but soon you will realize you are up late because you are, in fact, reading a thriller.
Emily Carter, author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some," lives in Connecticut.