Sunday 8 August 2021

In the Kingdom of Men

Finished August 5
In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes

This novel is set in the late 1960s, with some backstory for the main character before that. Gin (Virginia) Mitchell has had a life filled with loss. Much of this is summarized in the first few pages. Her grandfather was a Methodist preacher and her grandmother submissive but secretly rebelling, saving enough to escape back to her family. Her father died in the Korean War, and her mother soon after from cancer, and then her grandmother died. At the age of seven, Gin was taken in by her grandfather, a staunch Methodist preacher and hardscrabble farmer who denounced all that was worldly, prayed often and vociferously, but didn't judge anyone by their race. She took solace in books and sports, trying to hide both from her grandfather and not always succeeding. When one of the most popular boys in the area, Mason McPhee, took at interest in her, she jumped at the chance to escape, and they were soon married.
After another tragic loss, he accepted a job from Aramco, to work as a drilling foreman in Saudi Arabia, and the two found their world utterly changes. 
Given a company house to live in, with luxuries beyond what they'd had before, they are also limited in what they can do. Gin can only leave the compound with her husband's permission, and is expected to behave in ways that don't appeal to her. She makes a couple of friends of women who also rebel against the expected order of things, and tries to make friends with those in more servile positions. Mason is smart and was on a college scholarship before marriage intervened, and he doesn't buy in to the racial inequities prevalent in the company's way of doing things. His actions are dangerous to those in charge and while he and Gin and determined to see it through, others are working against them.
I loved Gin, and her adventurous, curious nature. She tries to see the world through the eyes of others, whether it is Bedouin men and women, her Indian houseboy, or her Israeli friend. She takes to the camera, finding opportunities to see the world in yet another way. She listens, she reads, she tries different food, she  judges people by their actions, not their backgrounds or skin colour. She is a survivor. 
Taking us to the Middle East, when the oil industry there was in its early stages, the author opens a window to a past world that lets us see a world that has echoes in today's. A fascinating read.

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