The Oklahoman, 9-1-2019
It's always an interesting surprise when your expectations of a book turn out to be wrong.
Lu Clifton’s latest novel, Seeking Grace in Beulahland, was not, I quickly learned, another adventure of Sam Chitto, Choctaw tribal policeman, the character that Clifton has treated readers to in three previous novels.
But the title had an instant appeal: the concept of grace has been the subject of many of my personal meditations. Add to that my curiosity about the origin of the word Beulahland, and I was ready to dive into the story headfirst. Well, I’m still up in the air about grace as an abstraction. I learned that Grace, in this novel, is a character who many have decided ran away and abandoned her children many years prior.
Beulahland, I discovered, comes from the biblical prophet Isaiah; it refers to the idea that, once the people of Israel had returned to their homeland from Babylon, they were “Beulahed,” or "married" to the land the Lord let them return to.
Seeking Grace in Beulahland is a tightly crafted novel that involves the interactions of at least five important characters:
Grover Cleveland Barlow is dying and needs his family to find the spot he has planned for his resting place, his Beulahland. Ruby Barlow and Sister, his two daughters, are distraught over his demand that they find the resting place so he can be buried next to his two mules.
Mack Barlow, his grandson, is a master carpenter visiting from Amarillo, Texas; he wants to make his mother’s and his aunt’s lives easier by moving them to McAlester, and he also becomes Granpa’s “confessor.”
Nonny, a former University of Oklahoma professor and now a rural postal carrier, has her own secrets to cope with.
The plot development did not disappoint; the story flows nicely and is full of surprises. I read the same intensity of character development as I had read in the Sam Chitto mysteries; Clifton has a way of helping the reader discover elements of her characters’ “souls.” I also easily related to the setting, in and around McAlester, including small towns, forests and country roads.
Overall, the double meaning of the title, "Seeking Grace in Beulahland," becomes clear when we learn the truth about Grace and the location of Grandpa’s Beulahland. The narrative evolves into a story of atonement and redemption for many of the characters. Besides, I love reading novels set in Oklahoma. I recommend this read for anyone who shares the same love; I am sure others will enjoy it as well.
— Richard Rouillard, for The Oklahoman
MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW
Seeking Grace in Beulah Land charts the progress of the cold
case of a
missing wife and mother, Grace Barlow, whose husband quietly accepted her
disappearance and continued on with his life as a sharecropper in a rural
Oklahoma community. Sixty years later, it falls upon grandson Mack Barlow to
uncover the truth when he returns home to investigate his 87-year-old
grandfather's increasingly bizarre behavior, only to discover a family
secret that will change not only his life, but a small community.
Lu Clifton's story excels in fine descriptions of this rural Oklahoma
environment, from family relationships, Mack's investigations, and community
culture: "He figured the burr-headed realtor to be a steamroller when it
came to persuading someone to her point of view. People with Cadillac
appetites were turned that way. She had probably pitched his idea to the
builder at the gated community that very day, which meant he needed to look
at that agreement fast. But time was on his side as Mama and Sister planned
to visit Pa after they left the Hometown Buffet, then stop at the filling
station to gas up."
As the characters begin keeping secrets from and vying with each other, from
siblings Sister and Ruby's growing distance to an evolving feud instigated
by Mack with the Turners, their land-hungry neighbors, it becomes apparent
the secret is tearing apart friends, family, and neighbors alike. From
mysterious watchers to missing mules and accidents waiting to happen,
tension slowly ratchets up as Mack untangles a web of complexity in a
relentless attempt to reveal a long-dead truth.
Mack believes he's doing the right thing-but, is he? From peace of mind to
legal proceedings that seem to involve the Turners, events move from slow to
fast-paced, successfully immersing readers in the psyche and simmering
secrets of a small town on the brink of discovery.
Seeking Grace in Beulah Land isn't a mystery per se; leaning toward the
literary, the storyline reaches for broader emotional and social depth. It's
a satisfyingly engrossing, close examination of a family married to the
land, and what happens when war and nightmares change everything. The truth
about Beulah Land's real legacy complicates the lives of the people,
politics, and personalities of Oklahoma in a manner that powerfully examines
rural life, concerns, relationships, and the consequences of choices past
Readers seeking an engrossing blend of rural history and family and
community intrigue will relish this saga, which centers around land
ownership, management, and the life-altering results of land lost and found:
"A man might lay claim to a piece of land, he thought, but in the end, it
was the land that claimed the man."
-- D. Donovan, Senior Editor, Midwest Book Review