In the Kingdom of Men
Virginia "Gin" McPhee tells her 1960s-era story, setting an irresistible hook for readers in the first two sentences:
"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."\
"Author Kim Barnes gives us a compelling mystery and vibrant adventure tale set in the 1960s-era Middle East.... Readers will find themselves unable to stop turning pages until the end, marveling all the while at Barnes' lyrical writing and storytelling genius."
After first her soldier father and then her ill mother die, leaving her an orphan, Gin is raised by her stern dirt-poor preacher grandfather. Despite his enforcement of righteous rules, including one forbidding any reading other than scripture, the girl's adventurous and questing spirit is not to be crushed. She hides library books, devouring them in secret. In her imagination, she has traveled through the Arabian Desert, although her wildest daydreams have never foreseen that someday she actually will live there. Teenaged Gin also begins to lie and sneak around, dipping liberally into those activities her grandfather denounces as sins: dancing, card playing, smoking, drinking, movie viewing, and more.
When Mason McPhee, popular, smart, and headed to college on a scholarship, shows interest in Gin, she can't believe her luck. However, it isn't long before she is pregnant. Mason has a strong sense of what is right; he gives up his scholarship to marry Gin, and the young couple eventually find themselves flying to Saudi Arabia where Mason works for the Arabian American Oil Company.
The gated compound in which their luxurious, marble-floored new home stands is filled with the bored wives of American oil workers. Mason is gone for several days at a time, at first leaving Gin at loose ends, with a servant to cook and tend the house and a gardener to care for the grounds. Finally, Gin forms friendships that sustain her. Vibrant, adventurous Ruthie takes the newcomer under her wing, piercing Gin's ears, insisting she buy a bikini, and confiding gossip about the characters peopling the inbred and claustrophobic compound of American oil workers. Gin also takes the first tenuous steps toward friendship with her "houseboy," an Indian man named Yash --- just one of the actions by adventurous Gin destined to rupture the status quo in the Aramco community, with its taboos and constraints. Meanwhile, Mason first discovers company practices that offend his sense of justice and then finds clues to company corruption. He simply cannot ignore these problems, but it is nearly impossible to know who to trust.
Gin's coming of age, as she seeks her own path in this surreal and exotic environment, is beautiful and bitter, tragic and joyful. Author Kim Barnes gives us a compelling mystery and vibrant adventure tale set in the 1960s-era Middle East. Gin is an imperfect but sympathetic character whose strong spirit drives the unpredictable twists and turns of the plot. Readers will find themselves unable to stop turning pages until the end, marveling all the while at Barnes' lyrical writing and storytelling genius.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on June 15, 2012