Rilla Askew has penned a novel about issues of immigration, a topic that is currently at the center of a national conversation. “Kind of Kin” (Ecco, 432 pages, $25.99) is set in Oklahoma in 2008, but fits easily into the contemporary landscape as today’s politicians, everyday citizens, and immigrants — both legal and otherwise — grapple with the realities of the issue.
To make an issue book work, you have to create fully fleshed out characters who aren’t simply stand-ins for specific positions or talking points. Askew is largely successful in this effort, particularly when it comes to portraying individuals attempting to live out the tenets of their particular faith to the best of their ability.
From Sweet, a woman attempting to hold her family together and to determine the right thing to do in the face of myriad challenges; to her father, who accepts imprisonment rather than renouncing his principles; to Luis, an illegal immigrant whose Catholic faith sustains him; to Brother Oren, a pastor who sticks to his Biblical understanding at great personal and emotional cost, Askew portrays matters of faith with sensitivity and nuance.
She is perhaps less successful in creating well-rounded villains for her story. From a carpet bagging conservative politician whose ambition colors her every move to a strutting sheriff who is interested in fame and favors rather than the faithful fulfillment of his duties, Askew sets up stereotypes that serve her well when her heroes need to make a stand against the system, but are less satisfying as characters. It would be far more interesting to read people who approach the immigration issue from a different set of principles rather than from a hunger for more power and a concern about optics.
Still, “Kind of Kin” is thought provoking, and its story is well told. Askew makes it easy to get invested in the story of her troubled, struggling heroes, and gives us the opportunity to consider how our faith or principles inform the way we think about and behave toward those caught up in the real-world story of immigration rules and reforms.