In the Kingdom of Men

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Here is the first thing you need to know about me:  I’m a barefoot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma, and all the marble floors in the world will never change that.
Here is the second thing:  that young woman they pulled from the Arabian shore, her hair tangled with mangrove—my husband didn’t kill her, not the way they say he did.

   1967. Gin Mitchell knows a better life awaits her when ...

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In the Kingdom of Men

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Overview

Here is the first thing you need to know about me:  I’m a barefoot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma, and all the marble floors in the world will never change that.
Here is the second thing:  that young woman they pulled from the Arabian shore, her hair tangled with mangrove—my husband didn’t kill her, not the way they say he did.

   1967. Gin Mitchell knows a better life awaits her when she marries hometown hero Mason McPhee. Raised in a two-room shack by her Oklahoma grandfather, a strict Methodist minister, Gin never believed that someone like Mason, a handsome college boy, the pride of Shawnee, would look her way. And nothing can prepare her for the world she and Mason step into when he takes a job with the Arabian American Oil company in Saudi Arabia. In the gated compound of Abqaiq, Gin and Mason are given a home with marble floors, a houseboy to cook their meals, and a gardener to tend the sandy patch out back. Even among the veiled women and strict laws of shariah, Gin’s life has become the stuff of fairy tales. She buys her first swimsuit, she pierces her ears, and Mason gives her a glittering diamond ring. But when a young Bedouin woman is found dead, washed up on the shores of the Persian Gulf, Gin’s world closes in around her, and the one person she trusts is nowhere to be found. 
   Set against the gorgeously etched landscape of a country on the cusp of enormous change, In the Kingdom of Men abounds with sandstorms and locust swarms, shrimp peddlers, pearl divers, and Bedouin caravans—a luminous portrait of life in the desert. Award-winning author Kim Barnes weaves a mesmerizing, richly imagined tale of Americans out of their depth in Saudi Arabia, a marriage in peril, and one woman’s quest for the truth, no matter what it might cost her.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Barnes’s latest (after A Country Called Home) is an immersive and bracing exploration of one woman’s search for freedom amid repression. Suffocated by the patriarchal strictures of her 1960s evangelical Oklahoma home, Virginia Mitchell elopes with the noble Mason McPhee. They move first to Texas, where Mason works on an oil rig, and then to Saudi Arabia, where he is fast-tracked for management at Aramco. Gin bristles against the comfortable but circumscribed lives of the Aramco wives—suspended between the libertine sexual mores of the boozy expat community and the sexless, draconian prohibitions of the Saudi virtue police. When Mason organizes the Bedouin workers against the company’s abuses and stumbles onto a deadly coverup, Gin must brave a wilderness of corporate lawlessness to save him. Gin is a delightful heroine whose tenacity animates those around her, a quality that lays the groundwork for an extraordinary adventure and unsettling conclusion. Barnes deftly teases humanity out of corruption and hypocrisy, and her language is finely wrought and her pacing masterful—Gin’s story develops languidly, then draws taut as the stakes rise. Agent: Sally Wofford-Girand, Brick House Literary. (June)
From the Publisher
“Lyrical . . . It takes guts to title a novel after a line from the Bible—‘the Most high rules in the kingdom of men’—and then to begin Chapter 1 with possibly the most famous biblical reference available: ‘In the beginning.’ Following through, Kim Barnes casts her protagonist and narrator, a young American girl called Gin, in the image of a certain female character from a certain creation myth. . . . In the Kingdom of Men [is] something more than a novel about an Okie who causes trouble in a foreign land. It’s that, and a feminist bildungsroman.” —Juliet Lapidos, The New York Times Book Review 
 
In the Kingdom of Men resembles Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills as much as any other book. The men run the administration of a society made up of darker-skinned and, by definition, inferior people, but the women run the white-skinned men, casting an invisible but exceedingly strong net over the group. . . . The menus here are . . . so enticing that you’ll want to stop reading for a while and put together a sumptuous dinner. . . . A culturally complex story about American venality and greed.” —Carolyn See, The Washington Post

“Seldom has a book drawn me into its clutches as quickly as this one did. By the second sentence I was hooked on the first person account of Virginia Mae Mitchell . . . With a compelling narrative that never flags, we are quickly transported from the dusty, red clay plains to the seemingly infinite desert sandscapes of Saudi Arabia . . . From the waves of numbing heat and the vastness of the shimmering desert to blinding sandstorms, Biblical locust invasions, and the insidious, stifling boredom found within the confines of Mad Men-era Americana in the midst of an alien culture, Barnes makes the city of Abqaiq come alive.” —Jay Trachtenberg, The Austin Chronicle

“With courage and zest, Kim Barnes’s novel In the Kingdom of Men takes an intimate look at . . . the rarified and harshly beautiful world of eastern Saudi Arabia. . . . Her Americans are loud and sharp and leaping from the page, casually refilling their cocktail glasses and whooping it up at the Beachcomber’s Ball, some joyfully, some desperately, but all clinging to their own habits while betraying a general disconnection from—and disregard for—the Arabia all around them. And that disregard leads to the dark, tragic heart of the novel. . . . Within these lyrical pages is a story well worth investigating.” —Zoë Ferraris, San Francisco Chronicle 
 
“Drawn with skill and filled with evocative period detail . . . the plot is unfurled like a rich carpet, rolling out over a vast space before it gently settles and fills every corner. Barnes . . . gets more motion and feeling into a deceptively plain paragraph than many novelists can cram into a chapter. She ensures that Gin’s evolution is authentic, a wary, quiet observer and survivor who plumbs the depths of her new world with heart and courage. The women who populate this novel are all heroic in their various ways, a wonderful juxtaposition alongside this man’s world build by oil money.” —Kimberly Marlowe Harnett, The Seattle Times 
 
“Barnes regales us with the exploits of her high-spirited protagonist, Virginia ‘Gin’ McPhee, who follows her husband Mason from Texas to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. . . . Energetic and fast paced . . . [Barnes] does an excellent job of conjuring the sights, smells and heat of Saudi Arabia. She also has an astute understanding of the subtle, persistent pull of homesickness that lurks beneath the glamour of expatriate life.” —Laura Albritton, Houston Chronicle

“Barnes’s dramatic powers are sure-footed and surely lyrical . . . An ambitious amalgam of sexism, racism, corporate colonialism, culture clash, class issues, religion, love and marriage, grief and loss.” —Kassten Alonso, The Oregonian
 
“Arresting . . . A richly wrought historical novel . . . Barnes seems incapable of writing a lazy sentence. It would be easy enough to enjoy her novel for its images alone—Gin learning to roast coffee beans over an open fire and milk camels straight into enamel bowls; the local children who line their eyes with kohl and drip with precious stones—but its feats are more than just descriptive. We have here the portrait of a woman whose ambitions outsize the time and place she lives, and also of what happens to a marriage when taken out of a familiar context. In the Kingdom of Men, in many ways, is a close inspection of how radically a life can be rescaled, and how quickly. With a protagonist like this, Barnes could have set her novel in a single room, and we’d keep reading.” —Alice Gregory, The Boston Globe

“Kim Barnes has created a heroine for the ages in Gin McPhee—fierce, sad and tenacious, a self-described ‘barefoot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma’ who is consumed with the desire to see and know everything going on outside the country-club-esque compound in the vast Arabian Desert where, against all odds, she has found herself living. In the Kingdom of Men is a gripping thriller that plays out amid the oil-inflected relationships of the Americans and the Saudis (further complicated by the Bedouins and the Indians who serve them both) in the moody landscape of the Arabian frontier.” —Pam Houston, More Magazine

“Barnes brings her own childhood struggles with a strict, isolating Pentecostalism to her enrapturing third novel about a tough, fearless Oklahoma girl raised with religious austerity and misogyny, who finds herself living in a luxurious yet oppressive American oil company enclave in 1970 in Saudi Arabia. . . . Barnes animates a magnetizing cast of cosmopolitan characters, lingers over descriptions of food and clothing, dramatizes cultural contrasts and sexual tension, and brings this intense and compassionate novel of corporate imperialism, prejudice, corruption, and yearning to such gorgeously vivid, suspenseful life that the story’s darkness is perfectly balanced by the keen wit and blazing pleasure of its telling. A veritable Mad Men of the desert, with the depth of a Graham Greene novel.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“An immersive and bracing exploration of one woman’s search for freedom amid repression. . . . Gin is a delightful heroine whose tenacity animates those around her, a quality that lays the groundwork for an extraordinary adventure and unsettling conclusion. Barnes deftly teases humanity out of corruption and hypocrisy, and her language is finely wrought and her pacing masterful—Gin’s story develops languidly, then draws taut as the stakes rise.” —Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed review)

“Addictive . . . Barnes’s sweeping drama takes the reader on a captivating journey from rural Oklahoma to Saudi Arabia.” —Julia Edelstein, Real Simple

“When her husband Mason gets a job with Aramco, Oklahoman Gin McPhee moves from small-town life to a wider—and wilder—world of privilege, corruption and Middle Eastern geopolitics in the 1960s. . . . Barnes writes poetically and intensely about personal conflict and subtly informs the reader about continuing western misunderstandings of Middle Eastern culture.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A swashbuckling, thrilling ride of a book, In The Kingdom of Men transports readers to the sands of Arabia and the recesses of the human heart. Ginny McPhee is a heroine unlike any other, negotiating love, politics, the intricacies of marriage, and the journey to selfhood. A vivid and compelling tale.” —Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Birds of Paradise

“I was transfixed by Kim Barnes’s thoughtful, elegant account of a young American woman's experience of 1960s Saudi Arabia. It describes a piece of the world that seems utterly fresh, never-written-about, and In the Kingdom of Men brings it to vivid life. This is a historical novel which is not only romantic and dramatic and compelling, but has particular, important relevance to our current age.” —Dan Chaon, author of Stay Awake and Await Your Reply

“This is a mesmerizing novel, set in the American heartland and Saudi Arabia—two locations that on the face of it couldn't be more different. But from the point of view of a woman not allowed to be herself, the two places have startling similarities. We read, in part, to be taken elsewhere. In the Kingdom of Men succeeds mightily in this. We also read because we enjoy good writing. You’ll find that in abundance here.” —Elizabeth Berg, author of Once Upon a Time, There Was You

“A great windswept adventure full of tension and suspense, In the Kingdom of Men is moving in the truest sense, sweeping the reader along with its gorgeous prose, a rich setting, and most of all, Gin McPhee, one of those rare characters who sits up on page one, grabs you and pulls you into her world.” —Jess Walter, author of The Financial Lives of the Poets
 
“This novel has it all: an intriguing story that thunders to a thrilling climax, characters who grab our hearts, gorgeous prose and a setting that stuns the reader at every turn. Arabia!” —Ellen Sussman, author of French Lessons
 
“If you want to understand, right in your gut, the history of the American relationship with Saudi Arabia; if you want a magical, layered story of west-inside-east, culture layered over culture, and the slow—still ongoing—revolution of gender and race oppression, In the Kingdom of Men is your book. It's Mad Men meets The Sheltering Sky, a Revolutionary Road for the oil-addicted. It's also an utter pleasure to read.” —Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall and About Grace

Library Journal
Barnes's (A Country Called Home) latest novel is about a girl, Gin, who trades on her rural Oklahoma life for a journey to 1967 Saudi Arabia. Orphaned at seven and forced to live with her strict religious grandfather, she ends up pregnant during her rebellious high school years. Her new husband, Mason, gets a job working for an oil company, first in Houston, TX, and then in Saudi Arabia. The couple move to a walled-in American compound in the middle of the desert. Gina's first-person narration is meant to show her as independent, progressive, and at times incredibly naive as she tries to adjust both to life in the compound and in the new country. Her bouts of cultural confusion, along with oil politics, lead to a crisis. VERDICT Barnes writes beautifully, but she isn't able to cobble together a coherent story. The novel's first third gets off to a strong start, but the cinematic descriptions of the desert don't make up for the weak characterization and unbelievable adventure plot. The book depends on Gin's narration, but this reader found her character inconsistent and contrived, the secondary characters no more than plot devices. Not recommended.—Pamela Mann, St. Mary's Coll. of Maryland, St. Mary's City
Kirkus Reviews
When her husband Mason gets a job with Aramco, Oklahoman Gin McPhee moves from small-town life to a wider--and wilder--world of privilege, corruption and Middle Eastern geopolitics in the 1960s. Raised by her strict Methodist grandfather after her parents died, Gin begins to define herself by an attitude of rebellion. One form this rebellion takes is to date Mason McPhee, the local Golden Boy, who quickly impregnates her in the back of a sedan. Although, much to their sorrow, the child dies, Mason does the honorable thing by marrying Gin and then, after briefly working on oil rigs in Oklahoma and Texas, accepts a position with Aramco in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia. There, while Mason is working two-week shifts out in the desert, Gin finds herself getting acquainted with bored and blasé women such as Candy Fullerton, wife of the district manager, and Ruthie Doucet, who warns Gin about "uppity" houseboys and orients her about what behaviors women are not allowed to engage in outside the compound within whose walls they live. The rules include women not driving, not visiting the suqs and most of all, not going outside the gates alone. True to her rebellious nature, Gin begins to change in the exotic environment, befriending her "houseboy," a mature man named Yash, as well as Abdullah, a Bedouin with a degree in petroleum engineering. At first Mason is content with his new job--or at least content with the money that comes with it--but soon he uncovers evidence of a corrupt scheme in which both Americans and Saudis are implicated. Stressed by what to do with this information, he finds his relationship with Gin deteriorating and then becomes implicated in the murder of a young Arabian woman. Barnes writes poetically and intensely about personal conflict and subtly informs the reader about continuing Western misunderstandings of Middle Eastern culture.
The Washington Post
This isn't a cloak-and-dagger thriller…but it's a culturally complex story about American venality and greed…In the Kingdom of Men teaches a lesson some of us have already learned about the banality of evil, but it's good for us, as American readers, to be reminded of it again.
—Carolyn See
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307273390
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/29/2012
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Kim Barnes is the author of two memoirs and two previous novels, including A Country Called Home, which received the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in fiction and was named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post, the Kansas City Star, and The Oregonian. She is the recipient of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award for an emerging woman writer of nonfiction, and her first memoir, In the Wilderness, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in a number of publications and anthologies, including The New York Times; MORE magazine; The Oprah Magazine; Good Housekeeping; Fourth Genre; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; and the Pushcart Prize anthology. Barnes is a professor of writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain.

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Read an Excerpt

January 1, 1970
Rome, Italy

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 young woman they pulled from the Arabian shore, her hair tangled with mangrove—my husband didn’t kill her, not the way they say he did.

There is so much, now, that you will want to know, that you believe I will be able to tell you. If not, why even begin?

Because I can’t stop thinking of her, not yet eighteen, per- fectly, immutably silent, just as they wanted her to be. It is the dream of her face shining up from the sea like a watery moon that still haunts me. Not even her mother will speak her name.

Because, among these Roman people whose language flows like a river over rocks, my own name drops heavy as a stone, no husband, no father, no family or tribe to tether me.

Because I don’t know who I am anymore and have forgotten who it was I meant to be.

Let me tell it from the beginning, then, remember the truths of my own story so that I might better bear witness to hers, trace the threads to that place where our lives intertwined—one of us birthed to iron-steeped clay, the other to fallow sand, each of us brought to this place by men born of oil.


Chapter One

In the beginning—­these three words my daily bread, recited at the kitchen table in our shack in Shawnee, the Bible open in front of me. Before then, just as the Korean War was beginning, I remember my mother humming honky-­tonk as she fried spuds for our dinner, two-­stepping to the table in an imaginary waltz. She was the daughter of a Methodist circuit preacher who extolled separation from the world, and his wife, who bowed her head in submission and held her tongue even as she secreted away the money she made selling eggs, a penny at a time added to the sock hidden beneath the nest of her beloved Rhode Island Red, a hen so fierce and prone to peck that my grandfather gave it wide berth.

My mother loved to tell the story: how my grandmother scraped and saved until she had enough for a train ticket back to her family in Pawhuska, then rose one morning, fixed her husband a big pot of pork hocks and brown beans—­enough to last him a week—­made bacon and extra biscuits so he wouldn’t have to go without breakfast, ironed his handkerchiefs and starched his shirts, then told him that one of the ladies of the church was having female troubles and needed her care. My grandmother walked out the door with a bundle of biscuits under one arm, her infant daughter in the other, went straight to the train station, didn’t even leave a note. My grandfather refused to divorce her, would never forgive the way she had deceived him, but maybe he should have known—­the way that women have always lied, risking their souls to save their sorry lives.

It was eighteen years later when my father, two weeks hitchhiking Route 66 and still no job, came looking for work at the Osage County Fair and first laid eyes on my mother—­a rodeo princess pitching cow chips for charity. He must have fallen in love with her right then—­the way she could clean up pretty as a new nickel or muck down on her knees in manure, that sunshine smile never breaking. She brought him home to meet her mother, and I like to imagine that moment: the three of them at the table, the late light warm through the window, and all of them laughing at their good fortune—­to have found one another, to share the sweet fruit of that pie.

My parents were married that winter, and the next winter, I was born. When my father was drafted, my mother and I moved in with my grandmother to wait out the war. Two years later, the official from the State Department arrived, telling how my father had died in the Home-­by-­Christmas Offensive, that the president was sorry, as was the nation. My only memories of him reside in the stories my mother told.

And then, that summer I turned seven, the cancer came up through my mother’s bones like it had been biding its time, took what smile was left, took her teeth and blanched her skin to parchment. I would lie in our bed and cradle my dolly in a tea towel while my mother wept and prayed that God would take her and my grandmother offered another spoonful of laudanum. When, finally, God answered my mother’s prayers, and then, only a few months later, my grandmother was felled by a blood clot that the doctor said had bubbled up from her broken heart, I was ordered into my grandfather’s custody.

He came to the city orphanage in his old Ford pickup, and I watched from the doorway as he approached, a lean man, sinewy and straight, with a strong way of moving forward, like he was forcing his way through water. Pinched felt hat, starched white shirt, black tie and trousers—­only the seams of his brogans, caked with mud, gave him away for the scabland farmer he was when not in the pulpit.

My nurse had dressed me in a modest blouse and jumper, but I refused the hard shoes she offered and wore instead my mother’s old riding boots, an extra sock stuffed in each toe. The first thing my grandfather did was have me open my suitcase. My doll, my mother’s rhinestone tiara, her wedding ring—­all worldly, my grandfather said, the devil’s tricks and trinkets, and he left them with the orphanage to pawn.

I wailed all the way to Shawnee, but my grandfather didn’t speak a word. By the time we took the road south that led to the flat edge of town—­that marginal land where the poorest whites and poorer blacks scraped out a living—­I had cried myself into a snubbing stupor. He held my door, waited patiently as I climbed down and stood facing the narrow two-­room shack with its broken foundation and sagging roof, the outhouse in back a haphazard construction of split pine. I trailed him through the kitchen, its walls papered with newsprint, pasted with flour and water, stained dark with soot, and into the bedroom, where he placed my suitcase on the horsehair mattress. He peered down at me, laid his hand on top of my head. “God will keep us,” he said, pulled the door shut, and left me alone.

From the room’s single window, I saw that he had changed into his patched work clothes, and I watched as he hitched the jenny mule, threw the reins over his shoulders, and returned to the plot he’d been plowing. What I found in that house was little: tenpenny nails in the wall, hung with my grandfather’s good hat and suit; a two-­door cupboard that held Karo, flour, sugar, a salted ham hock; an oilcloth-­covered table and two weak chairs; a short-­wicked kerosene lantern; a potbellied stove streaked with creosote; the cot that my grandfather had set in the kitchen and covered with an old wool blanket so that I might have the bed. I moved to the porch, found the washbasin, the straight razor, the leather strop, and a cropped piece of flannel that he used for a towel. I sat on the single-­plank step and watched him chuck the mule up one row and down another until he put the plow away, came and stood in front of me, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“Where’s my dinner, sister?” he asked gently. I hadn’t thought to feed him, didn’t know how. He led me back to the cupboard, showed me the cast-­iron skillet, the knife, how to make red-­eye gravy with the ham drippings, flour, and salt. Over the next week, we would eat that ham right down to the bone, boil it for soup on Saturday, crack it for marrow. I learned what it meant to be hungry, learned that Sundays meant more food and a healthy helping of God’s word.

Because he now had a child to care for, my grandfather left the circuit, and he counted it as God’s goodwill that a small congregation east of the city was in need of a pastor. The parishioners, some white, most black, folded us in, and though I had no siblings, they called me Sister Gin. I wasn’t yet old enough to understand what the townspeople might think—­that poor little white girl—­and spent the Sabbath wedged in a hard oak pew between skin that ran from pale pink to sallow, dusky to dark. My grandfather’s dictates were absolute, but in his eyes, all of God’s children, red and yellow, black and white, were bound by the same mortal sin, given the same chance at redemption. I sat in fascinated horror, the sanctified moaning around me, as I listened to my grandfather’s hellfire sermons that foretold the woe of every unsaved soul. Blood to the horse’s bridle, flames licking the flesh—­the punishment that would come my way if I didn’t repent, but no matter how hard I considered my deeds, I didn’t yet know what sins to confess.

After the hymns had been sung—­happy are the faithful dead!—­the churchwomen prepared a fellowship meal at one shack or another. Your color didn’t matter when it came to who was served and where, but whether you were male or female did. The men were fed where they sat, their wives fixing their plates before their own, wise to their husbands’ predilections: Brother Fink ate only the chicken’s legs, thighs, and the tail he called the pope’s nose; Brother Jackson required that his food be layered—­a mound of potatoes topped with meat and smothered with a generosity of gravy. The boys not old enough to be in the men’s circle and the girls too young for kitchen help were called in next, made to scrub their faces, and put to the table. Only after the men and the children were served did the women eat: bread heels, chicken backs, the wateriest remains of corn pudding. They ate with babies nursing at their breasts and whispered their hushed stories of hard births and cancerous wombs, jumping up when called to bring another biscuit or glass of sweet tea to the men, whose talk was of dropping wheat prices, Nazi spies, and the local criminal element that ran bootleg out of the bottoms and carried razor-­sharp knives. I sat quiet in whatever corner I could find, acting like I wasn’t listening, but what I heard told me all that I needed to know: that the world was fallen, that my only hope lay in the grace and glory of God, that Satan was waiting for me to falter at every turn, that he might appear to me as the Angel of Light, deceive me with his wicked tongue, and lead me to hell as his bride.

How many times did I rouse from some nightmare, call out for my mother to save me? I might have left the trappings of my old life behind, but my grief had packed up and moved right along with me, shaped and weighted as though it had a life of its own. I woke one night so sure that the devil had found me that I ran to the cot in the kitchen, told my grandfather that I could feel that grief lying right there beside me like a panting black dog. He lit a candle, took a vial of oil from the corner of the cupboard, made the sign of the cross on my forehead, and pressed his palms to my ears. “Demon, by the authority given to me by the Lord Jesus Christ, I command that you leave this child!” He gripped my head tighter, shook it like a gourd. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, come out of her, I command you!” He drew his hands away so quickly that the suction nearly deafened me. When I opened my eyes, I saw the tears pooling in the dark shallows of his face, his mouth arched as though that demon had leaped right out of me and into him. I went back to my bed, now cold, and wished I had never left it, had kept my hurt to myself. Silence was a lesson I learned well—­how to mute my body, my voice, my heart.

That fall, my first day of school, my grandfather rode me to town on the mule because the pickup had broken down and no amount of prayer would fix it. As we approached the playground, I saw all the white children pointing and laughing until the pretty young teacher came out to scold them. If I hadn’t understood it before, I knew it then: we were different, I was different, not only a member of the Holy Roller church but an orphan from the south edge of town who lived where most whites wouldn’t. I slid from the mule’s broad back, kept my head down, and followed the teacher into the room, where she showed me my desk and placed a picture book in my hands. “You can read for a while,” she said kindly, and left me to lose myself in the pages even as the other students filed in and began reciting their numbers. From that point on, books became my solace, my escape. I brought them home from the library, hid them from the eyes of my grandfather, who believed that only the word of God had a place in his house, that stories outside of the scripture might lead me astray.

I completed elementary, kept growing, went with the junior high nurse to buy what my grandfather called my unmentionables—­soft-­cupped brassieres, panties, sanitary belts and napkins—­then stood in my bedroom, confounded by the hooks and straps, ashamed when my grandfather would no longer meet my eyes when I came in from the outhouse. From him, I learned that I was the daughter of Eve, a danger to myself, a temptation to those around me. Couldn’t wear pants, only skirts that covered my knees. Couldn’t wear makeup or jewelry to draw the attention of men. Couldn’t cut my hair, which was my veil of modesty. Couldn’t preach because Paul said so. Suffer not a woman. When revival came and the Spirit descended, the sisters who were slain fell flat on their backs, arms raised to heaven, ecstatic in their possession, and I was the one whose charge it was to hasten forward and cover their legs with the lap cloths that they themselves had sewn so that their modesty might be maintained. What would it feel like, I wondered, to give myself over so completely, to fall under such a spell? But not even the fear that I would spend my eternal life in hell brought the call that would lead me to kneel at the altar, lay myself at the feet of the Lord, and the church people noticed. I learned to pretend the conviction I did not feel, to pray with my mouth open, my eyes closed, my hands raised to heaven. I was saved—­couldn’t they see? Born again. It was a lie I didn’t realize I was living, a way to survive the surly dictates of that thing called faith.

Who knows what gives rise to our sensibilities? Maybe it was some seed of resistance sown in me by my grandmother that allowed me to keep my soul to myself. Maybe it was just the way I was—­turned funny, I heard them say. They didn’t even bother to hide their mouths. No matter the color of my skin, I was the kind of girl they watched from the corners of their eyes, the kind of girl that brought them to predictions—­headed to ruin if I didn’t get my head straight, my heart right with God. I wasn’t like them, wasn’t like anybody I knew.

It was the characters in books who spoke to me, reflected some secret part of myself. When the librarian handed me To Kill a Mockingbird, I read it straight through, then hid it beneath my bed. “I lost it,” I told the librarian. “I’ll work check-­in and checkout during recess to pay.” She was satisfied, and so was I. It was a sin that I was jealous of and wanted to keep—­the worst sin of all.

Walking home from school one afternoon, the September air thick with gray aphids, Anne of Green Gables open in my hands, I found a girl asleep on her sack, cotton tufting her hair. Fall harvest meant more hours in the field for the black children of South Town, the season’s sun beating down, the long, long sack trailing behind like an earthbound anchor. Maybe that was when I began to understand that, no matter how different I was, my life would never be as hard as hers. I sat at the edge of the patch and watched her for a long time, then tore away one page of the book and then another, planting them in the soil beneath her bare feet as though they might sprout like Jack’s magic beanstalk and carry her aloft, as though I were feeding the girl her dreams.

When the librarian discovered the ruined book, she said that two was too many and sent me home with a bill. That was the first time I lied outright to my grandfather. Ignoring any lessons I might have learned about false accusation, I described in detail how Tug Larson, the schoolyard bully, had knocked the novel from my hands. “He grabbed me,” I said, “and pushed me down.” I cried and showed my grandfather the bruises I had pinched on my arms to convince him how wounded I was. He grew solemn, said he would talk with the boy, but I insisted it would only make things worse, that he was already being given detention, and shouldn’t I forgive? My grandfather was placated, and I felt a surge of relief and tingling possibility. I had transgressed, might confess and be forgiven, but I had discovered something that intrigued me even more: I could lie and not be struck dead in my shoes.

I remembered my grandmother’s ways, used the last of our flour and lard to bake half a batch of sugar cookies, told my grandfather I was taking them to Sister Woody, an elderly parishioner who lived down the road, and he nodded his approval at my charity. I felt like skipping as I made my way out the door. I had no destination, only a desire to be free. I walked an easy two miles, ate half the cookies, fed the rest to the crows, turned around, and came home happy with the news that Sister Woody’s health was improving.

I became braver, told bigger lies, and walked the farmland for hours or hid with my book in the neighbor’s barn. In gym class, I let my body have its joy, leaping and sprinting ahead of my classmates. When my teacher suggested I try out for girls’ basketball, I forged a careful note home that said I was helping clean the blackboards after school. I made the team and for the first time felt part of something, like I might be someone’s friend, running up and down the court and hollering back and forth like it was a normal thing for a girl to do. I skipped the communal showers, unable to imagine letting myself be seen naked, left my knee-­length trunks and sleeveless top in my locker, and ran as fast as I could, hoping to beat my grandfather home. He would sit down to the dinner I made him and never say a word about my wild hair, my ruddy skin, and I believed I had fooled him until the evening he rode into town on the mule and appeared at practice still in his farm clothes, pulled out the worn Bible, and filled the gymnasium with his voice. “ ‘The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy God!’ ” He clapped the good book closed, pointed me to the door, and I slunk out, shamed not by my sin but by the looks of pity on the faces of my teammates. Once home, he sent me to my room and sat at the foot of my bed, studying me with intense sadness, as though he might see the workings of my deceitful soul. “I can’t let you burn in hell,” he said, and raised the leather strop. The fierceness of his whipping came up through my bones, rattled like dry seeds in my ears. After, he held me and cried. Maybe that’s why I can forgive him. He only meant to save me.

Why couldn’t I just obey? Drinking, smoking, dancing, bowling, playing cards, going to movies, wading with the Butler boys down at the creek—­all sins. To question my grandfather’s rules and the law of his God was mutiny, any plans to rebel an act of treason. Yet even with the punishment I knew was coming, I’d slide open the sash I’d waxed with paraffin, drop to the ground, and walk to Chester’s Drug, where I would sit at the end of the counter and watch the boys peacock, the girls preen while the jukebox played Elvis, Roy Orbison, the Miracles.

The only one who paid me any mind those times was Juney Clooney, a white girl too pretty for her own good, the church ladies said, but I envied her grace, the way she tipped back her soda, ponytail hanging down like a plumb bob. She would pour me a glass of her Nehi, something in her smile almost sad. Maybe I was the only one who wasn’t surprised when her place at the counter came up empty, one of the few who knew the truth of what had happened between her and Baby Buckle.

Buckle was a childlike man, rolled flesh at his neck, rounded shoulders and soft hips, waist cinched by a wide leather belt and a brass buckle the size of a saucer. He worked right there at Chester’s Drug as a delivery boy. Chester and his wife always said that Buckle showed up one Christmas Eve, abandoned as a baby on their doorstep, cold as slab marble, but rumor held he was Chester’s son by Hazel Twig, a young mixed-­race woman from our side of town who cleaned the store once a week until she up and disappeared. Because that is what happened when girls got themselves in trouble. They were sent to the home for unwed mothers or simply sent away, anything to erase the family’s shame, absolve the father’s guilt.

It was Juney’s twin brother, Jules, who came stumbling into the store one day, his shotgun loaded, hollering that he’d gone home for lunch and found Juney crying. She told him that Buckle had come to make a delivery, caught her alone frying gizzards, and dragged her into the pantry. I sat stone still as the other boys piled into their pickups. They found him beneath that big walnut tree at Bowman’s Corner, asleep with his pants at his ankles. They didn’t stop to ask, just noosed him up with his own belt, buckle splitting his mouth like a bit. It wasn’t but a few days later that I came in on Juney’s mother, confessing to my grandfather that it wasn’t Buckle who had raped her daughter but Juney’s own daddy, who told her to blame Buckle or he’d kill her and her mother too. All that Buckle did was pick the wrong tree to do his business behind. But what good would it have done for me to tell, and who would believe me? I had read the stories of courage and conviction, but sometimes the truth seemed worse than the lie. I sat quiet at the counter, kept my secrets to myself.

What I remember of high school: not the football games and dances I wasn’t allowed to attend, not overnights with the girl- friends I didn’t have, but the romances and mysteries that kept me company. My grandfather demanded from me humility, modesty, and temperance, but when I read Little Women, Gone with the Wind, Murder on the Orient Express, I entered into the realm of everything knowable, anything possible, if only I were smart enough, pretty enough, and brave.

In my imagination, I had traveled to that place of dark-haired princes and veiled sultanas, knew the thousand and one tales that kept Scheherazade alive, dreamed that I might do the same, weave a web of stories so enthralling that the man I loved would be spared the agony of having to kill me, but if someone had told me that I would soon be living in Arabia, I would have laughed. And no matter the number of romances I read, I never dreamed that someone like Mason McPhee would kiss me—my long skirt, those awful shoes, straw from the henhouse tasseling my socks. But Mason. Highest-scoring point guard, on full-ride scholar- ship to Oklahoma State, once and former prom king, the pride of Shawnee! Homecoming, the first parade of my life, Mason an honored guest riding high in a convertible Chevrolet, everyone calling his name. Only our hometown astronaut, Gordo Cooper, had a bigger crowd, and he’d orbited the Earth in a spaceship.

I wore my best wool skirt, rolled it up just a little. If my grandfather had seen me that way, he’d have whipped me into next Sun- day. I thought I might look like Rita Hayworth, auburn hair to my waist, loose and undone, and maybe I did. Maybe that’s what Mason saw. “Virginia!” He cupped his hands like a megaphone. “Ginny Mae Mitchell!” I was struck dumb, as though he were the first ever to call my name.

Here’s the truth of it: watching him smile and wave from that car, I made the decision right then. When he asked me out for a Coke, I thought, This is it, my one chance with a man like Mason McPhee. I waited until my grandfather was asleep and slid open my window, not a creak or scratch to betray me.

That Coke was the sweetest thing. I couldn’t believe I was there at the soda fountain with Mason, the other boys slapping his shoulder. The girls looked at me like they’d never seen me before. Maybe because I didn’t know what to say, Mason talked and talked. About basketball, all the hours he had practiced in back of his house, a bicycle rim bolted to a pine. How his share- cropper father would come in off the tractor, challenge him to a game of Horse, and they would play past dark, nine games, ten, until Mason’s mother called that she was feeding their dinner to the hogs. Mason always knew he would go to college and was studying prelaw, meant to be the finest public defender to come out of Pottawatomie County, maybe even a judge. He was sure that he could make a difference. He railed against the war in Viet- nam and segregation, told me about the marches and protests he attended. “This world right here isn’t real,” he said, and tapped the café table. “You,” he said, resting his hand over mine, “you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. We’ve got to think bigger, do bigger things, like the Reverend King says.”

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 30 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2012

    In the Kingdom of Men: A masterpiece!

    This is a gripping novel with complex characters, especially the protagonist Gin McPhee, who journeys with her husband from rural Oklahoma to Saudi Arabia. Set in the 1960s, this extensively researched and vividly imagined piece of historical fiction has beautiful sentences and enough political intrigue, corporate greed, religious fundamentalism and gender discrimination to keep everyone happy. A must read.

    11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2012

    Worst ending ever

    I liked the book but i hated the ending.

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2012

    Good until the end

    It was a fun read. But then the end came and it felt like some other story. The parts about Aramco are interesting but the end just left me disappointed.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2013

    Loved it until the ending...

    I loved this book up till the end; worst ending ever! It was a huge disappointment but loved everything up till then. This is a more of a cultural book than a mystery type.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2012

    Highly recommend

    Not what I had anticipated. It was well written and an easy read.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2012

    Heart wrenching

    My pick for the best summer read of 2012! I was hooked when I heard the author read the beginning of the book on NPR and didn't let go until the end. Such a lyrical cadence to the book. A MUST READ !!!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 12, 2012

    An excellent story about a time gone by, and one that we'd all b

    An excellent story about a time gone by, and one that we'd all benefit from learning more about. This is a pleasant way to learn--it's a well-researched and highly readable fiction that's plausibly plotted. Those of us old enough, all know some of these people! A fine reading experience.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2012

    Exotic.

    Very different. Loved being taken away to Arabia. Great story. Good writing.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 23, 2012

    Waiting

    Sounds like a winner. Looking forward to receiving the book on 5/29/12.

    2 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 23, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    In the Kingdom of Men was both fantastic and disappointing all a

    In the Kingdom of Men was both fantastic and disappointing all at the same time. It was fantastic because the story was great, the characters (mostly) real, and the premise wonderful. It was disappointing because  the advertised portion of the book was such a minute detail that I felt a little bit shafted.




    I have no doubt that Kim Barnes is a talented writer and I was very much caught up in this story about a poor girl who is dragged from the drudgery of her everyday life and into the arms of a star athlete at the local high school. Together, Gin and Mason flee their hometown in Oklahoma in search of bigger and greater things until they arrive in Saudi Arabia, where Mason gains employment with an oil company. Unfortunately, the job requires more time away than at home, and their marriage naturally suffers.¿¿Set in the late 1960′s, Gin battles what many housewives at the time fought against: boredom. Only for Gin, the boredom was worse because she was confined to a compound in a country that required women to take the veil and remain indoors. Rebelling against the rules and finally coming into her own, Gin ignores general decorum and befriends the house boy, leaves the compound, and even wears a bathing suit! Meanwhile, Mason defies the norm by advocating for workers rights and trying to uncover the mystery behind his predecessor’s abrupt departure.




    Like I said, this book has a great story and is beautifully written. BUT, the whole reason I picked up the book was because of a murder, and it was such a small piece of the book that it was almost inconsequential. I would feel differently if it had a bigger role in the storyline, but I feel like it was tossed in there so that it could “tie up” some loose ends, but instead it left me wanting (not wanting more – just wanting).




    That said, if you go into this book knowing all of this, then you’ll probably love it.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2013

    Inspiring book

    I enjoyed this book a lot. I found it inspiring to read this women's journey to deal with the short fallings of life.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 10, 2013

    Joins her memoir on my top shelf

    I absolutely love Kim Barnes' writing! In addition, the story was intriguing, the characters were real, and the dialogue was authentic. Bravo!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2013

    So disappointing. Started out on a high but fell flat.

    So disappointing. Started out on a high but fell flat.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2013

    Minus 1 star

    Not a fan. I found the book very slow moving but since I spent twelve bucks on it I made myself finish it. And what is with the ending. Wish I could get a refund!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2013

    In the Kingdom of Men

    The book was about a woman from a small town in Oklahoma (I think) who gets pregnant and then married, only to lose the baby. The husband moves them to Saudi Arabia during the early stages of the Arab-American oil company. It's about the company compound and the politics and control and the different lifestyles and culture clashes - especially the difficulty of being a woman at that time and place. The book was good, only problem was I read what I thought was a small spoiler of the main event of the book before actually reading the book only to find out it wasn't the climax but the conclusion, so I was waiting the whole book for the main event to happen only to have it happen in the last few pages. Still, it was very interesting.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 12, 2012

    A Must Read

    loved this book! Brought back alot of memories of "what could have beens" Awesome story and so very true!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 28, 2012

    Good book

    Good read!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2012

    Very Interesting Tale

    This tale is very good book. It has many stories with in story plot. During the beginning the story is fruitful and compelling. Near the end it takes a dangerous twist that will hit you in the heart. The ending is not what you would expect. Overall I personally like book. If you soft hearted this story might not be for you.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2012

    Oklahoma to Arabia

    Big culture shock-Did not see that ending coming!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2012

    Worth the read

    I wasn't sure what to expect when I started this book but I thought it was excellent -- very entertaining though the ending wasn't as satisfying as I would hope.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 30 Customer Reviews

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