In the Kingdom of Men

Jun 21, 2012

In the Kingdom of Men, by Kim Barnes


One of the Northwest’s most prominent authors, Kim Barnes, is out with a new novel about power, poverty, oil and oppression.  It’s called In the Kingdom of Men.   Northwest Public Radio's John Paxson has a first look.

Kim Barnes’ new work is a tale of life--and death--in the closed, often claustrophobic compounds of Americans working in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.  It is also a portrait of a soul in transition.  

Kim Barnes: It’s the story of a young American couple of the 1960s who come out of the poor dirt of Oklahoma and head to Arabia, to the oil fields there and the great development of those fields to make a better life for themselves and what they thought might be the American dream turns into what we might call a nightmare.

The twinned themes in the Kingdom of Men are oppression and religious intolerance—much of it directed toward women.   Barnes, who teaches English at the University of Idaho and lives outside Moscow, brings an understanding of those themes few other authors working today can match.  Her earlier memoir about growing up in and leaving a fundamentalist faith—In the Wilderness—was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. 

John Paxson: Is this a book about women?

Barnes: It’s a book about women but it’s also a book about men.  The title In the Kingdom of Men has many resonances not only with the location of Saudi Arabia but with the Biblical context—and I was raised in the Pentecostal Church of God and the Valley of Abraham was something that I had only known in abstraction and of course as I began to work on this book it became real to me in another way.  But the church that I grew up in and the faith, which was called Pilgrim Holiness, also taught the silence and submission of women. 

Here, the silence and submission are expected of Virginia—Gin—McPhee.  Gin is raised by her grandfather, a rigid fundamentalist Christian preacher.  He whips Gin for the slightest transgressions but she continually rebels.  Forward some years and she is married and living in the Aramco compound in Saudi Arabia with her high school sweetheart, now husband.

Kim Barnes:  It was very easy for me to understand, of course, that someone who had been raised in that kind of fundamentalist faith who had like Gin been whipped by her grandfather for cutting the sleeves from her blouse one hot Oklahoma day, that going to a place like Saudi Arabia may not seem so different. 

But, as she did in Oklahoma, Gin begins to rebel against the oppression and intolerance.  She ignores the Saudi caste system and its rules.  She indulges in pastimes and passions that are off-limits to not just an American, but particularly to an American woman.  There are consequences.

Kim Barnes: In my experience and in my, what do I want to call it, my world view, my personal paradigm, if you will, a woman who doesn’t obey and who acts out and who believes she can control her own fate and her own destiny will be punished.  There is no other way.

There is no other way.  The book opens as a murder mystery, and closes as one as well.  With some questions—unanswered.  Along the way it is a remarkably good read.