February 6, 2010


Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
2008 Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Finished on 1/30/10
Rating: 5/5 (Excellent!)
Winner of the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Fiction

Publisher's Blurb:

Sometimes it's necessary to do wrong.
Sometimes it's the only way to make things right.

In this award-winning portrait of two families caught up in the blind hatred of a small Southern town, prejudice takes many forms—some subtle, some ruthless. Mudbound is the saga of the McAllan family, who struggle to survive on a remote ramshackle farm, and the Jacksons, their black sharecroppers. When two sons return from World War II to work the land, the unlikely friendship between these brothers-in-arms—one white, one black—arouses the passions of their neighbors. As the men and women of each family tell their version of events we are drawn into their lives. Striving for love and honor in a brutal time and place, they become players in a tragedy on the grandest scale and find redemption where they least expect it.

Wow. This is an incredible book. One of my regular customers at work loaned it to me and as soon as I finished, I knew it was one I wanted to own. And read again. And have my husband read. And have my book club read. And have high school teachers read and teach to their students. I haven't felt this way about a novel since, well, The Help. And The Book Thief. Powerful stuff.

Told in six alternating first-person narratives, we come to know Laura McAllan, her husband Henry, and his brother Jamie, as well as Ronsel Jackson and his parents, Hap and Florence, the family who work the land of the McAllan family. Like Kathryn Stockett's beautiful debut novel of the social injustices of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, Hillary Jordan creates a powerful debut novel of her own, depicting the often shameful treatment of the returning African-American soldiers during and after WWII. I love the way Jordan draws the reader in close to each character, giving different perspectives to a single act. The chapters are full of suspense and tension, creating a page-turner that sucked me in from the opening pages and made me wish for a hundred pages more as I approached the concluding chapter.

Unlike The Help, this novel is fairly serious, lacking any levity or humor. And yet, Jordan is a superb storyteller, shedding light on a dark and often ignored portion of our history without sounding pedantic or preachy.

On Mississippi farm life in the 1940s:

When I think of the farm, I think of mud. Limning my husband's fingernails and encrusting the children's knees and hair. Sucking at my feet like a greedy newborn on the breast. Marching in boot-shaped patches across the plank floors of the house. There was no defeating it. The mud coated everything. I dreamed in brown.

When it rained, as it often did, the yard turned into a thick gumbo, with the house floating in it like a soggy cracker. When the rains came hard, the river rose and swallowed the bridge that was the only way across. The world was on the other side of that bridge, the world of light bulbs and paved roads and shirts that stayed white. When the river rose, the world was lost to us and we to it.

One day slid into the next. My hands did what was necessary: pumping, churning, scouring, scraping. And cooking, always cooking. Snapping beans and the necks of chickens. Kneading dough, shucking corn and digging the eyes out of the potatoes. No sooner was breakfast over and the mess cleaned up than it was time to start on dinner. After dinner came supper, then breakfast again the next morning.

On the power of the land:

Slept four nights in that house and by the end of em I'd a bet money there was gone be trouble in it. Soft citybred woman like Laura McAllan weren't meant for living in the Delta. Delta'll take a woman like that and suck all the sap out of her till there ain't nothing left but bone and grudge, against him that brung her here and the land that holds him and her with him. Henry McAllan was as landsick as any man I ever seen and I seen plenty of em, white and colored both. It's in their eyes, the way they look at the land like a woman they's itching for. White men already got her, they thinking, You mine now, just you wait and see what I'm gone do to you. Colored men ain't got her and ain't never gone get her but they dreaming bout her just the same, with every push of that plow and every chop of that hoe. White or colored, none of em got sense enough to see that she the one owns them. She takes their sweat and blood and the sweat and blood of their women and children and when she done took it all she takes their bodies too, churning and churning em up till they one and the same, them and her.

Some of the language is difficult to read, but it rings true and wouldn't be accurate if Jordan had toned it down in order to make it fit today's standards of political correctness.

On the return of the African-American soldier:

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig. Coon, spade, darky, nigger. Went off to fight for my country and came back to find it hadn't changed a bit. Black folks still riding in the back of the bus and coming in the back door, still picking the white folks' cotton and begging the white folks' pardon. Nevermind we'd answered their call and fought their war, to them we were still just niggers. And the black soldiers who'd died were just dead niggers.

I usually wait until I've finished reading a book to read the back cover and I rarely ever read the blurbs or endorsements found at the beginning of a book. There are 28 review blurbs in Mudbound and I read each and every one. I wanted to read what others were saying about this stunning debut. I found myself nodding my head in agreement on several occasions, but my favorite was written by Barbara Kingsolver:

This is storytelling at the height of its powers: the ache of wrongs not yet made right, the fierce attendance of history made as real as rain, as true as this minute. Hillary Jordan writes with the force of a Delta storm. Her characters walked straight out of 1940s Mississippi and into the part of my brain where sympathy and anger and love reside, leaving my heart racing. They are still with me.

I finally got around to setting my 2009 Top Ten endcap at work. I'm still handselling lots of copies of my #1 book (The Help), but more and more, I find the customers I talk to have already read it. So I've added one more shelf and placed a couple of copies of Mudbound right next to it. I explain to those who have already read (and loved) The Help that Mudbound is just as good, just as thought-provoking, and just as beautifully written. I've already sold all the copies we have in the store. I may have found my #1 book for 2010.

I know I'll read Mudbound again in the coming years, but now I'm looking forward to the release of Hillary Jordan's upcoming dystopic novel, Red, set thirty years in the future in Crawford, Texas!

See what other bloggers have to say about Mudbound:

Mudbound is not a perfect book, but it is absolutely spellbinding. It's the sort of book you begin to read and suddenly you've read 100 pages and the next thing you know you've finished. It's the sort of book that creates an atmosphere from which it's difficult to surface. It's astonishing really, to read something like this from a first time novelist. Hillary Jordan is an author to watch. (Tara of Books and Cooks)

Jordan has impressive talent and I eagerly await her next novel. This successful Southern read goes on my Best Reads of 2008 list! (Joy of Thoughts of Joy)

Click here to watch the Mudbound book trailer

Click here to listen to Hillary Jordan read a passage from Mudbound, as well as hear speak of the inspiration for this remarkable story.

Click here to visit the author's website and blog.


  1. This is on my 2010 reading list. I've heard nothing but positive feedback on it. Your review was terrific. Thanks

  2. Now that sounds like a must-read for sure! I think I'll even suggest it at our next book club meeting. Great review!

  3. You gave me a ton of reasons to pick this one up! Thanks for the awesome review because I had not heard of this book until today!!

  4. I had this one on the tbr list but a couple of people told me they didn't like it so then I began wondering. Now I may take it off the list just because I'm going to be rushing out to get it tomorrow!

  5. Anonymous7:30 AM

    I really want to read this one, especially after reading your review!

  6. Added this to my list! Thanks for the great review.

  7. Anonymous1:26 PM

    I've known about this book for a long time. In fact, I've owned it for a quite some time. I think I got caught up in The Help and then just pushed this one aside. I will pull it out and read it soon. I think I first heard of it on the Maggie Reads blog maybe? Anyway, I do remember trying to suggest to my boss that they consider it for the Mayor's Book Club in 2008 (she's on that committee). It was very new and since it was a debut, I thought the author would almost certainly be available.

    Great thoughts you wrote and I promise to read it soon.

  8. Oh I'm so happy that you loved this one as much as I did. It was one of my top reads of 2008 and since I also rated it 5 stars is on my Highly Rated shelf on Goodreads.

    I read a library copy, but definitely want to purchase a copy so I cna read it again and share it with my Sister-in-Law who gets all my best books at some point or another.

  9. Fantastic review, Les. I agree with everything you wrote, 100%. I do think I "enjoyed" The Help a little bit more because of the little bits of humor and levity, but Mudbound is such a powerful and masterfully told story--the characters did just appear to have walked out of 1940's Mississippi. After seeing the book raved about all over the place last year and the year before, I wasn't prepared for how difficult parts would be to read--but oh what important parts those were. I wish I could pop into your bookstore and look at your endcaps--what a dream job.

  10. Goodness, wasn't this an amazing book? I'm so glad you thought so too. I am definitely suggesting this to my bookclub for 2011. Thanks for the heads-up on Jordan's next book - sounds very interesting!

  11. Well, that is going right on to my need to read STAT list!

  12. I've had this book on my Amazon wishlist forever! Obviously I really need to get a copy of it soon!!

  13. Diane - I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It's not an easy read, but it's so well-done and memorable. Thanks for you kind words.

    JoAnn - Definitely a "must read!" I'll bet your book club would have a great discussion. Let me know if they decide to read it.

    Staci - I think this one has slipped under the radar for a lot of folks. Glad you enjoyed the review. Hope you like the book!

    Lisa - Hmmm, I wonder why they didn't care for it. It's not a fluffy, feel good book, but I still enjoyed the writing and historical content. I'll be interested to hear what you think once you've read it yourself.

    Reviewsbylola - Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed my review. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

    Pam - Thank you! And thanks for reminding me to pop over and visit your blog. I've been away too long and I miss seeing all your lovely photos and recipes. Need more hours in my day!

    Kay - I still want to buy my own copy. I know it's one I'll read again someday. Yes, I think Maggie Reads mentioned it on her blog when it first came out. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. There are times when it was a little difficult to read.

    SuziQ - I really did! It was just so well done. I loved all the voices (and was glad for the absence of one in particular). I can't wait for my husband to read it so we can talk about it. I think I'll recommend it to my book club sometime next year when I'm ready for a reread.

    Kim - Thank you for such a nice comment. Yes, it's definitely a difficult book to read at times (hated that father!), but I'm so glad to have discovered this wonderful author.

    If you're ever in Lincoln, Nebraska, I hope you will pop into my bookstore and say hello. It is a dream job and I'm very lucky to have it.

    Tara - It was an amazing book. I can't stop thinking about some of the scenes... I think I might like to listen to it on audio now that I know the story. Wonder if the reader is any good.

    Laura - And it's in paperback. Even more reason to rush out and buy a copy to read ASAP! :)

    Stephanie - Yes, you do! Pronto! :)

  14. YIPPEE!!! I'm jumping for joy with you! It's just too much fun when we come across a winner like this one, isn't it? :) I think (didn't check) I rated it a 4.5/5. Don't ask why I didn't give it a 5 because I can't answer you. Other than, maybe I'm just stingy with that coveted rating. ??? Anyway, so glad to see it is a favorite of yours. I have a hard covered copy on my shelf and love peeking at it every now and again. :)

    OH! Thank you for the info on her upcoming novel. I wasn't aware of that. I will be on top of it as soon as I see it. :) I'm excited about it being a dystopian novel. Woo Hoo!

    And - thanks again for the link.

  15. Joy - It is great to find such a winner, especially early on in the year. I think I read most of my favorites in the first half of 2009. Wonder how 2010 will turn out. As far as the rating, I almost gave this a 4.5, too. I don't remember why I changed my mind to bump it up a notch, but something caused me to. Maybe the fact that it really spoke to me and that the writing was so well-done, not to mention the importance of such a book. I still haven't bought myself a copy yet, but I definitely plan to. I'm excited about her new book, too. Love me some dystopian fiction. :)

    And - you are one of my favorites to quote from. We seem to read a lot of the same books, don't we?

  16. I haven't read one "winner" yet this year. :( Definitely some very good books, but nothing that can stand on the podium. (yes, I've been watching the Olympics - grin)

    We read many of the same books because I read your blog. Tee Hee!

  17. Leslie-
    I just finished Mudbound and you were right, it was fantastic!! Definitely not a "feel good" book but great none the less! I think I might of liked it a little more than I liked The Help!

  18. Sara - Wow! You're a fast reader! Didn't you just get this for your Nook? I'm glad you enjoyed it. Now to think of another book to recommend that you haven't already read. :) Since you're so speedy, maybe I'll go ahead and let you borrow my copy of Tana French's Faithful Place since I can't review it for a few more months. LMK. I know you've got that Dennis Lehane book to read, too.

  19. Leslie-
    I don't always read this quickly but my husband has been out of town so once the kids go to bed all I have been doing is reading til late in the night! The nook makes it WAY too easy to buy books! I am trying to decide what to read next since i am going to let my hubby read the Lehane book first.

    Also just read "Look again" by Lisa Scottoline, it was a quick read and pretty entertaining but not really believable.

    Now to look over all your other reviews to see if I can find something else to buy... not that I don 't have books to read already:)

  20. I think the only reason I didn't like it as much as you (though I liked it a lot) was because I didn't like Henry or Pappy (needless to say) or Laura. Especially after Laura decided in a snap she wasn't in love with Jamie anymore, and the reason for it (pot calling the kettle black). But I think everyone who reads The Help should read this one for some balance!

  21. rhapsodyinbooks - I don't remember how I felt about Laura, but I really disliked Pappy!

    I agree that everyone who reads The Help should give this a read, as well. I think a lot of people are just now getting to The Help now that the movie is out. I'll have to start suggesting Mudbound to those customers at the bookstore where I work.


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