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
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.