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Originally published Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 4:00 AM

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‘Kind of Kin’: lines that divide a small Oklahoma town

In her portrait of a small-town Oklahoma family, Rilla Askew’s new novel, “Kind of Kin,” captures the fault lines over immigration that divide contemporary American society.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Kind of Kin”

by Rilla Askew

Ecco, 432 pp., $24.99

As is the case for many of us, the neighborhood I grew up in is no longer the neighborhood that exists today. Its density has changed, and so has its complexion. There’s more traffic and there are more languages. But up and down those streets, inside those homes, the families that live there today, like the families of decades past, still aspire and work and argue and celebrate.

Rilla Askew captures the differences — and the universal sameness — in an affecting new novel, “Kind of Kin.”

This is a modern family portrait that captures in tattered human microcosm the impact that modern immigration trends have had on American society.

Askew lives in Oklahoma, the first state in this century to pass stringent legislation pertaining to illegal immigrants. Although the state law targeted Hispanic communities, it ended up touching more people in more ways than anyone might have imagined.

Askew and her family felt the effects firsthand. Struck by the odd amalgam of unforeseen connections — and rifts — that sprang up among politicians, cops, churchgoers, clergy, undocumented workers, naturalized citizens, businesses and families, she started writing about it.

“Kind of Kin” focuses on a family of small-town Christian Anglos who suddenly find themselves arrayed on opposite sides of the fence — literally and figuratively — with the enactment of Oklahoma’s 2007 anti-illegal immigration law.

The story is told from different points of view.

Ten-year-old Dustin has been living on his maternal grandpa’s farm since the death of his mother some years before. But his grandfather has just been jailed for hiding undocumented workers in his barn.

Dustin goes to stay with his aunt, who is married to a pipeline worker who resents the influx of Spanish-speaking laborers.

Dustin’s older half sister is married to a Mexican who has just been deported. Their U.S.-born toddler speaks only Spanish.

And when Dustin runs away, the man who helps him is a Mexican who is in the United States illegally.

Between these story lines, Askew intersperses the machinations of an Oklahoma state legislator who, ambitious for a political career beyond her dusty legislative district, is trying to get out ahead of the game with legislation that cracks down on illegal immigrants and on those who aid them.

This novel confronts head-on the realities of our era. For the people who reside in these pages, money is always a worry. They live in extended families, shop at Walmart and freeze their credit card in a block of ice. The men work longer hours and the women handle everything else with thrift and multitasking acumen.

“Kind of Kin” is concerned with legal rights and civil rights. It looks at how religion straddles cultural, social and political divides while trying to attend to the needs of an increasingly diverse population.

The book’s least successful story thread has to do with political haymaking. The female legislator is a cartoonish figure with obvious shortcomings. These segments offer comic relief but not much insight into the really difficult issues of immigration, assimilation, national security and funding.

The other characters and story lines are more complicated and more interesting. Askew has created a realistic and compassionate reflection of the people who populate our neighborhoods and our nation today.

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