Aside from two fully employed adults, our home houses several thousand books. Because we don’t practice the “one in, one out” philosophy in acquiring them, the books overfill the shelves and are stacked on flat surfaces around our home. Yet, I often can’t resist picking up another book I haven’t read from the 25 cent table at my favorite book store or a pile at a library sale. Thus this series, “Off My Shelf,” where I take a book from a shelf or a pile, read (or reread it) and decide whether it stays or goes.
Have you ever felt like an evangelist for a certain book? After reading Rilla Askew’s Fire in Beulah, I feel as though I have been called to share it whenever someone asks for a book recommendation or wants to know what the best book I’ve read recently might be.
I purchased my copy of this novel at the Oklahoma Celebration of the Book at OSU-Tulsa several years ago and it’s signed by the author. This year I undertook Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge, thinking of it as a way to read more difficult books and stretch myself intellectually. When I got to the “read a book set less than 100 miles from where you live” category of the challenge, I pulled down Askew’s book from our living room shelves. Other books fit the category, but I had read S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders as well as the play adaptation, not to mention Tracy Letts’ Tony Award winning August: Osage County. Askew’s novel fit the challenge, as the book is set in Tulsa, well within the geographical parameters of the challenge, and I’d never read it.
The narrative centers around two women, one white, one black, one the wife of an ambitious oil wildcatter, one a maid. The terrible connections that bind them are background for the rising tensions that lead up to the explosive violence that broke out one day in 1921 when a black man was accused of attacking a white woman in an elevator and white Tulsa decimated the Greenwood district, known throughout the country as "Black Wall Street".
I have sometimes felt that books come to us when we are ready for them, and that seems to be the case here. Shortly after I read Fire in Beulah, I read Killers of the Flower Moon:The Osage Killings and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. Reading the two so close together emphasized that Oklahoma history is American history, with all the violence and striving for more that implies. Both Askew’s novel and Grann’s exhaustively researched non-fiction work shed new light on two shameful events in Oklahoma history. Askew uses different voices to advance the narrative in her story, and the mixture of her insight into each of those characters and the rich details she includes from her own research make the novel compelling.
I can’t say it’s my favorite book; it’s not a book I would pick up and reread as an escape, as it is exhausting in its violence, both emotional and physical, and sobering in the long suppressed truth it exposes. Fire in Beulah is an important book, and it definitely deserves the place it holds on my shelf.