Rilla Askew began her first novel, The Mercy Seat, with a meditation on Oklahoma: “It’s name first in English was Indian Territory, and then, for a short time, it was called two territories, Indian and Oklahoma–meaning both the same thing, a redundancy–and then, again, it is one. The land book and held its Indian name, its Choctaw name, okla homa, meaning ‘red people’ as the whole of the continent, changing, would hold her place names, her mountains and rivers, in the tongues that first named them. The shape of it, drawn in mythical lines by men who collaborate in illusion, is that of a saucepan, or hatchet. It lies not in the heart but in the belly, the very gut of the nation…”
While that novel follows the journey of two families to the Indian Territory in 1887, Fire in Beulah narrates another story of the “belly”, when the displacements and speculations of the original land boom were echoed by racial conflict and thinly regulated oil exploitation in the 1920s. In a brief period of time, the state recapitulated two great national excesses: the first large race riot in Detroit and the earlier gold rushes in the West. As in her first novel, Askew features two families: Althea Whiteside Dedemeyer and her husband, an oil entrepreneur, and Graceful, her black maid, whose family lives in the doomed Greenwood section of Tulsa. Each woman has a fugitive brother who involves her in the turmoil leading to the burning and bloodshed of May 31, 1921.
Askew credits a number of studies of the Tulsa Riot that emerged in the late 1990s, coincident with the approach of its 80th anniversary, the unearthing of a mass grave, and a state-sponsored investigation of what happened to determine liability. Oil fever, lynch fever, and the great gulf between the black and white communities of Tulsa all contribute to the passions and misunderstandings that sweep all the major characters into the climactic destruction of that night in May.
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