Covering Everything

Kim Barnes' book puts a girl from Oklahoma on a collision course with Saudi-American oil interests.

The home of Kim Barnes and her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, sits high in the foothills of Moscow Mountain, at the very end of an ever-branching, ever-narrowing road.

It is isolated here, but seclusion suits them. They chose seclusion at their last home as well, overlooking the Clearwater River south of Lewiston. Barnes grew up in seclusion. Places like Headquarters, Idaho. Company towns filled with loggers from all over the world looking for a place where no one else was. Places created for their remoteness and transience. Frontiers surrounded by civilization.

Her latest novel, In the Kingdom of Men (released Tuesday), is a study in the sort of seclusion that attracts people. It is set not in the panhandle, but on the Arabian peninsula, in the late 1960s, when oil was found under the sands and wadis and Saudi Arabia became the most sought-after frontier of all. The book has earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, the publishing world’s early-warning system, predicting critical praise to come. It has landed on several “Summer Reads” booklists, but it is not a light beach read.

The Barnes-Wrigley house overlooks the valley leading into Moscow. Barnes says you can look out across the entire expanse of the Palouse on a clear day, and see the Blue Mountains and the Wallowas rise up on the other side some hundred miles south. A different wilderness than theirs, but offering the same seclusion.

Barnes says the world is dotted with the sorts of wildernesses where men go to flee the world. The wilderness that inspired the writing of this book, though, exists outside her sightline — thousands of miles away and 50 years in the past.

And because Kim Barnes could not see Arabia from here, she has borrowed the sight of others. Histories of the region, botanies, geographies. The diaries of oilmen and their wives. The recollections of her uncle Wayne, who was a roughneck in Arabia in the ’60s, and his wife, Colleen.

But though the sight is borrowed, the vision belongs to Barnes, as does the voice. Before she had anything else, in fact, she had the voice, which begins the book by saying:

Here is the first thing you need to know about me: I’m a bare-foot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma, and all the marble floors in the world will never change that.

Here is the second thing: that girl they pulled from the Arabian shore, her hair tangled with mangrove — my husband didn’t kill her, not the way they say he did.

The story of Americans coming to Saudi Arabia for oil could have been written as wide-open as the massive dunes found there. Barnes tried that for a while, actually, selling the story to her publisher as a rollicking adventure told in the third person.

The story’s themes were huge: “Manifest destiny, colonization, women’s issues, women’s rights and also, this feeling of isolation,” Barnes says, but the story itself started to get too huge. “My editor said, ‘Kim, I think you’ve researched too much.’”

It took some time, and some rewrites, but Barnes realized that she could get to the first two themes by focusing on the last three. Corporate colonization — the push of massive companies to conquer the land — played out in the lives of real, small people.

People like Ginny McPhee, who comes to Arabia with her husband, Mason, from Shawnee, Okla. Mason is recommended for a job as a roughneck for the Arab American Oil Company (Aramco). Shawnee is a poor place, and Mason sees this as an opportunity to improve their lot. Ginny sees it as an opportunity for adventure. She arrives to find adventure all but forbidden to women.

American women live freely within the walled compound but can’t leave without their husbands. Outside the walls, by Islamic law, women are kept the property of their men. Within the walls, American custom isn’t exactly beneficent to anyone who isn’t white. The more people she meets, the more she realizes the people who are kept far outweigh those doing the keeping. Ginny soon begins to feel kept as well.

In writing Ginny’s story in the first person, Barnes builds the restrictions placed on people by both Saudi culture and American corporate culture into the book’s very structure. Restrictions that are simultaneously ethnic, gendered, economic and nationalistic.

And while first-person creates problems of storytelling (we cannot go where Ginny can’t go), this allows the reader to discover the world at the pace she does, dallying on the customs and the cultures of the people who have assembled here — Okies, Louisianans, Swedes, Texans, Eritrean Italians, Punjabis, Bedouins — each with their own foods, customs, baggage and prejudices.

Slowly, Ginny’s story becomes the story of how Saudi tribal chiefs and American magnates both use culture and custom to keep people poor, keep them cloistered, and keep them longing for wealth when they have freedom, and freedom when they have wealth.

And though the majority of the book required painstaking research, feeling kept is something that Kim Barnes understands with only the reference material of her own childhood. It is the part she still feels in her bones.

Barnes has never worn the burqa to conceal herself, but her deeply Pentecostal father didn’t allow her to cut her own hair.

“I was told it was my veil of modesty,” she says. “We didn’t call it covering, but it was covering.”

In writing the story of Ginny McPhee, then, Kim Barnes is telling an allegory of herself.

In 314 dulcetly written pages, Ginny McPhee will experience oppression in Oklahoma and in Arabia much the same as Barnes remembers from rural Idaho. Though the cultures seem worlds apart, these threads are common.

“My dad used to say, ‘You only think we’re in control,’” Barnes recalls. Ginny’s grandfather, imposing his harsh, firebrand Christianity in Oklahoma, will say much the same thing. Ginny will leave the poverty of Oklahoma looking for a place to be free. She will end up in Arabia, far richer, but no less caged.

Ginny will poke about her cloister, looking for weak spots in the physical walls and in the prevailing culture. She will try to find herself within these confines and when she cannot, she will try to force herself out.

The more of the world she sees, the more Ginny will long to know what the world holds and what people’s hearts do and, probably most of all, what her own does. This curiosity, kept caged for so many years of her youth, will run wild when Karen Barnes unleashes it upon the sands.

She will not rein in this curiosity, even when it puts the people she loves in danger. There are moments when we will realize she may be unable to rein it in, even if she tries.

Barnes wrote this story because she doesn’t think we’ve allowed ourselves to have a truly tragic female hero — tragic in the way Aristotle thought of tragedy: someone who comes to destruction as a result of her own hubris and blindness.

“We haven’t done it,” she says. “We can’t bear the fall of our mothers and daughters.”

And so Ginny McPhee will try to wrest control. In doing so, she will drag the novel’s dozen richly hued characters into peril alongside her.

But tragic heroes are uncomfortable to American audiences. Barnes’ agent and editor asked if Ginny really had to bring all this on herself. “I said, ‘Hell yes!” Barnes remember, laughing. “I wanted to understand what it means to be Eve. Someone who refuses to obey and believes she can control her own fate.”

Someone who, in demanding freedom, will be forced to confront freedom’s terrible cost.

Kim Barnes Reading • Tue, May 29 at 7 pm • BookPeople • 521 S. Main St., Moscow (208-882-2669)

Follow the River: Portraits of the Columbia Plateau @ Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU

Mondays-Saturdays. Continues through Aug. 14
  • or

About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.