When Barbara Kingsolver elected Hillary Jordan’s debut novel, Mudbound, for her Bellwether Prize (2006), the title went straight to my “must read” list. Since it remains one of my favorite books, I’m going to skip back a few years and choose it as our Read of the Month, a new SLR practice that will highlight one book a month, old or new.
Set on a Mississippi cotton farm after World War II, Jordan takes readers on a historical journey through a rough and racist southland where every person is expected to hold a certain place.
For the main character, Laura McAllan, that place is serving her husband, Henry, and taking care of their children on a remote and rugged farm without any modern conveniences of home. Bugs. Dirt. Heat. Humidity. Loneliness. Mudbound is no easy place to live, to say the least.
Add to that, a permanent and most-unpleasant house guest, Pappy, who may just be the worst villain ever depicted. Forget the old rule that every character should have some endearing quality that shows the depth of their complex personality. This guy is just plain hateful; and that hate is directed at everyone, particularly women, children, and people with skin darker than his own. Not that he’s kind to white men either, especially his own son, Henry. He simply tolerates them as a means to an end and forces many of them to yield to his weight.
When Henry’s brother, Jamie, returns home from war, he defies custom and befriends a fellow veteran, Ronsel, who happens to be the son of Henry’s tenant farmer. He also happens to be black. The men share many of the same liberal attitudes after the war, and their friendship triggers a chain reaction that delves into the darkly disturbing pits of human weakness and wrath.
Throughout this novel, the story is told by six different narrators, and readers come to see the world from the viewpoint of nearly everyone in the novel — except Pappy. Perhaps because of that, and because the book both begins and ends with the family digging Pappy’s watery grave with no remorse, it’s no surprise we come away with a genuine disgust for the family patriarch.
Readers may, however, have tremendous sympathy for Laura, who sees the world in simple terms and marries for stability and support more than for love. Her passions do run wild at one point in the story, but I won’t spoil the plot by revealing too much about that.
The real power of this book is the stick-to-your-guts kind of feeling you walk away with, after facing racism and bigotry eye-to-eye. Jordan does this by examining not just the violence, but the subtle, less brutal prejudices that simmer below the surface and allow the more brutal acts to boil over repeatedly without justice.
“Whatever else the colored man may be,” Henry tells us, “he’s our brother. A younger brother, to be sure, undisciplined and driven by his appetites, but also kindly and tragic and humble before God. For good or ill, he’s been given into our care.”
It’s these kind of thoughts that crawl way down deep in between the bones and fester.
Readers also find inspiration in the wisdom and strength of characters such as Ronsel’s mother. “Jamie McAllan had a hole in his soul, the kind the devil loves to find,” she tells us. “None of em seen it but me.”
Romance. Loyalty. Betrayal. Hatred. Love. Forgiveness. Tragedy. Jordan includes nearly every critical piece of the story. The only thing missing is the Triumph. She does provide an end-of-tale shift that leaves the characters all permanently changed by the experiences, but they all end up more scarred than saved. Perhaps that’s what makes the story so believable. She didn’t pen a fairytale ending. Instead, she gave us a tragic tale caked in mud and blood. Just the way it should be.
This book is a quick-read, perfect for book groups, and ideal for anyone who thinks, as Kingsolver does, that literature can change the world.
Mudbound, (Algonquin Books, 2008) was named one of the Top Ten Debut Novels of the Decade by Paste Magazine and won a 2009 Alex Award from the American Library Association. Mudbound was also the 2008 NAIBA (New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Assoc.) Fiction Book of the Year and was longlisted for the 2009 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Learn more about The Bellwether Prize and Hillary Jordan.