The Moore Tornado and Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew

I’m from Oklahoma. My boyfriend has occasionally said that I’m really from Texas, and I did grow up and go to high school and (undergrad) college there. You could say I spent my formative years in Texas. You’d probably be wrong, though. I think I spent my formative years, namely the last eight, in Oklahoma. I may have been reared and educated in Texas, but I wasn’t me before Oklahoma, and I wouldn’t be me now were it not for Oklahoma. I love it. I don’t live there anymore, but it’s home. My folks don’t live there, but it’s home. I don’t know that I’ll ever live there again, but it’s home.

This week, an F5 tornado carved a giant gouge across the heart of my home. I watched the coverage on television, feeling alternately weepy and queasy, and it struck me that I didn’t feel any of the “Thank God I’m not there” relief I would have expected. Instead, I felt an overwhelming sorrow that I wasn’t there, that I didn’t go through the terror and pain with the rest of my home state. That I could look out the window and see the green leaves merrily dancing in a light breeze on a beautiful sunny day while my fellow Oklahomans were listening to the tornado sirens wail, or at least, what they could hear of them over the storm.

At work, people keep asking if my friends and family in Oklahoma are okay. I don’t have much family there, just an uncle and aunt and their grandkids. They live near the affected area, but they’re okay. Most of my friends live in Norman, which is about 15 minutes away, so they’re all okay. I do know one person who lives in Moore and lost her house, but she and her family at least are alive and safe. So I can’t claim to personally know any victims, and usually that removes me from feeling too affected by tragedy. I didn’t cry over Sandy Hook, and I didn’t cry over the bombing at the Boston Marathon. I felt a sort of numb, detached horror that any person could do such things, but I didn’t spend tearful hours glued to the coverage like a lot of people I know. I even felt irritated with people who made dramatically sad Facebook posts — Way to make someone else’s pain all about you, I thought. I felt a little embarrassed and hypocritical to get weepy over the tornado news. Why does it affect me, when it doesn’t actually affect me?

Then I thought about this book:

Kind of KinKind of Kin

by Rilla Askew

Ecco, January 2013, 25.99 hardcover, ISBN-10: 0062198793

So, Rilla Askew is pretty much my swimfan-favorite Oklahoma author. I lurve her. I also usually love Billie Letts, but I lurve Rilla Askew. She’s just such a darn good writer, and she writes books about Oklahoma for Oklahomans.

I got insanely lucky and wound up with this, her latest novel, in a galley package from Shelf Awareness back when I first moved to Idaho, and I screamed when I found out I’d gotten it. So. Freaking. Happy.

Now, this book has nothing to do with tornadoes. It focuses largely on illegal immigration in Oklahoma. Actually, if you want to know about the book’s plot, check out my Shelf review here.

Because I don’t really want to talk about the book’s plot right now, but about its spirit. Here’s what I said about that in the Shelf review: “Oklahomans will recognize the Sooner State on a deep level in Kind of Kin; this is much more than a few mentions of Oklahoma City’s Penn Square Mall or the Choctaw Nation to set the scene. Vividly authentic, Askew’s portrayal of small-town, working-class Oklahoma encompasses its gossipmongering and fear of the unknown without mockery, as well as renders its core values, tenacious spirit and bone-deep sense of hospitality without becoming trite or twee.”

Here’s the thing about Oklahoma, and here’s what Askew captures in Kind of Kin: Oklahomans are a unique and amazing kind of people. They bend over backwards to take care of each other, and it isn’t a big deal to them. It’s just good manners. Sure, we have our differences of opinion, our deep and wide divides between races or creeds or political parties or sports teams (that one maybe being the greatest divide of all). When the chips are down, though, Oklahomans are Oklahomans. We take care of each other. No, our politics don’t always reflect it. In fact, maybe the fact that friends and neighbors help each other makes it that much easier for our politics to skew toward “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” But it’s this “we’re in it together” attitude that made me fall in love with Oklahoma.

Today I realized that Oklahomans didn’t get that way on their own. Oklahoma is a harsh place to live. The Dust Bowl is just the most extreme example. You always have tornadoes in the spring in Oklahoma. You always have crushing heat waves in summer. Sometimes there are ice storms, often there’s enormous hail, the wind is fierce and constant, and the threat of drought is ever-present. Oh, and so is the threat of flash-flooding, prompting mine and my boyfriend’s most favorite public service announcement ever: Turn Around, Don’t Drown. When you live in a place that brutal, you CANNOT get by on your own. Modern conveniences like running water and electricity make it easier these days, but those are fairly recent inventions. Oklahoma settlers lived without those inventions by relying on each other when times were hard and paying back the favor when times were good. The American Indian tribes who were forced to settle in Oklahoma probably also owe their survival to the “in it together” mentality of their cultures. While you’ll hear a good deal of talk about independence and bootstraps from Oklahoma politicians, Oklahomans really get by with a little help from their friends. When times are hard, everyone takes care of everyone because it’s the only way to make sure everyone is taken care of. That sentence is convoluted, but I bet if you’re from Oklahoma, you’re nodding.

I’ve had to field a lot of questions today, and I’ve seen some truly ignorant comments online, so let me clear up a few things:

1. Why don’t all the Okies have storm cellars if this happens every spring?

Because it DOESN’T happen every spring. Duh. If it happened every spring, you’d see news coverage like this every spring. No one would be shocked. Tornadoes happen every spring, but F5s aren’t a common occurrence. There’s about one a year, in fact, and they don’t all hit towns. Building underground shelters isn’t as easy as digging a big hole in the ground. In some places, the water table is too high to put in underground shelters. Those above ground shelters you hear about? They cost BIG money, and the high poverty level in Oklahoma bars many people from having them. As for shelters in the schools, seriously? Should every state in Tornado Alley have shelters in their schools? Doesn’t anyone realize how underfunded schools in that area usually are? New school buildings happen when student bodies get far too large for the old building, and then the construction priority is having enough space and decent facilities in the new building, not building shelters that will probably never truly be needed. Do you walk around with a steel dome over your head in case a piano or anvil falls on you? No, because it’s incredibly unlikely to happen. Well, getting hit by a tornado is also incredibly unlikely. Think about it: the United States averages OVER A THOUSAND tornadoes every year, but scenes like the one in Moore are uncommon. No wonder the underfunded schools are trying to put education before bunkers.

2. Why do people live there if the weather is so bad?

The same reason anyone lives anywhere: Jobs, family, or simple love of place. Sure, the summers suck (the life out of you), and tornadoes suck (up everything in their paths), but some people don’t have the skills or money to live elsewhere. Some people are doing their dream job and don’t want to live elsewhere. Some people are generational Oklahomans who can’t conceive of living elsewhere. And some people love the sunsets and the scissor-tailed flycatchers and their city or town of choice and their fellow Oklahomans. I mean, why do people live in California where there are earthquakes? Why do they live in northern Minnesota and put up with feet of snow? Why do they live on the coast and risk the hurricanes? Severe weather can kill you anywhere, and some of it isn’t nearly as escapable as tornadoes. We all make tradeoffs.

3. Did you lose any friends or family?

YES. My relatives are safe. My friends are all alive. But on a different level, if you’re an Oklahoman, you lost family yesterday, because we are all family. We are all “kind of kin.” And we are all grieving like crazy.