From the talented and ambitious Askew (The Mercy Seat, 1997), a second novel set in her native state of Oklahoma, this time a tale of primal guilt and racial intolerance during the oil boom.
In 1920 Tulsa, Althea Dedham is known as the spoiled wife of Franklin, an oil speculator who may finally have found his big strike down by the Deep Fork River. This is also the site of Althea’s impoverished childhood and of the ghastly birth, in 1900, of her brother Japheth, whose unwelcome arrival at the Dedham home sets in motion a chain of events that will reach apocalyptic fruition in the Tulsa race riot of 1921. Japheth, we quickly learn, is Trouble: he rapes Althea’s black maid, Graceful; he incites Franklin and partner Jim Dee Logan against each other; and he lies in wait for the part–Native American, part-black woman who actually owns the land Delo Petroleum is drilling so he can force her to sign her rights over to him. Iola Tiger also happens to be the midwife who saved newborn Japheth from death at the hands of his sister Althea. That’s a lot of coincidence for one novel to bear, but Askew isn’t interested in plausibility; our responsibility to and for other human beings is her principal theme here. She’s brave enough to make her protagonist initially unlikable: Althea bullies Graceful to assuage her own sense of worthlessness and heedlessly wanders into Tulsa’s black district, too immersed in her personal wretchedness and blinkered in her privileges to understand why three African-American men are terrified to have a weeping white woman in their offices. Althea’s moral growth into Graceful’s ally is intellectually satisfying, if not particularly moving; in general, the characters are strongly observed and truthfully drawn, but viewed from a distance. The mythic elements, like Iola’s first-person narrative and Japheth’s transformation from Bad News into Evil Incarnate, are also rendered somewhat unconvincing by this lack of emotional connection. Still, the gruesome finale makes a blistering indictment of white racism without ever uttering a didactic word, and there are haunting images throughout.
Imperfect, then, but powerful and thoughtful.