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Expelled from the Garden
It has become a commonplace in recent years to lament the lack of emotional depth and variety of subject matter in contemporary American fiction. One of the catalysts for this discussion, and perhaps its most eloquent instance, was a now-famous essay by writer Tom Wolfe that appeared in Harper's magazine in 1989, entitled, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast." After singling out the schools of metafiction and minimalism as the major sources of the problem, Wolfe resoundingly calls for a return to the realist novel of the nineteenth century with its epic scope of events and ideas, which in his view is exemplified by his own novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Along the way, Wolfe approvingly cites Sinclair Lewis who, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "called on his fellow writers to give America 'a literature worthy of her vastness.' "
Wolfe rather narrowly assumes that such a return to the realistic novel entails using the "tools of journalism" to study the city, the seat of contemporary culture. But one might just as easily fulfill Wolfe's call by borrowing the tools of the historian to examine a rich and neglected vein of America's rural past. That is precisely what native Oklahoman Rilla Askew has done in her stunningly beautiful first novel, The Mercy Seat.
The story of the Lodi family's sudden and unexpected migration in 1887 from Kentucky into Indian Territory encompasses the social panorama of western settlement, the particularities of which Askew renders in as loving detail as Wolfe could hope for. We come to know the interiors of cabins, wagons, and small-town general stores; we hear the staccato rhythms of western dialect and read Christian Scripture in its Choctaw translation. There are the sensual intimations that some of us even now recollect from our rural origins: the smell of sawdust and houses "thick with the smell of meat and biscuits." Finally, and arrestingly, we come to know the making of guns in all their variety, for it is the illegal manufacture ...