Mudbound takes on prejudice in its myriad forms on a Mississippi Delta farm in 1946. City girl Laura McAllen attempts to raise her family despite questionable decisions made by her husband. Tensions continue to rise when her brother-in-law and the son of a family of sharecroppers both return from WWII as changed men bearing the scars of combat.
Sharing such a common history and bond, these two men gravitate towards each other much to the dismay of both families. Friendships such as these were a secret, fearful thing in the days of Jim Crow. The war had taken these men, broadened their horizons and now had placed them back in a world of dark suspicions, hatred and discrimination.
This is the first novel for Hillary Jordan, and it truly is incredible. Powerful, simplistic writing, characters that are fully developed and real, and a story that will haunt me for a long, long time. The story unfolds as seen through the eyes of different characters, each viewpoint is so evolved and complete that the reader has no difficulty in identifying the storyteller at any given moment. Like an engine coming down the track, we can see where we are coming from and where we are going in this potent story of racism and its’ effects. Mudbound by Hillary Jordan is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it.
The book has several narrators: Laura, a Memphis belle who reluctantly moved to her husband’s farm; Henry, her husband who loved his farm more than anything; Hap, one of Henry’s tenants; and his wife Florence, a superstitious midwife who could smell trouble a mile away. Added to this mix were Jamey and Ronsel – veterans who came home with a restlessness that could not be resolved on the farm.
At the root of this story was the racial injustice prevalent in the 1940’s South. Hap, Florence and Ronsel experience racism every day of their lives– from deferring to their white neighbors to using the back door at the local store. Ronsel, after fighting for his country, could not readjust to the white-centric society. After discovering he fathered a child with a woman in Germany, Ronsel realized that the time to go was now.
However, the white people of this farming community had a different plan for Ronsel, who they found uppity and disrespectful. I don’t want to give away too much, but Ronsel’s ordeal was heart-breaking. He was a character I was rooting for, and I was disgusted with how he was treated by others.
Jordan’s characterization was spot-on. There were characters you loved, ones you felt sorry for and others you hated. It saddens me that racism is part of Southern history, but I believe it’s important to read stories, such as Mudbound, to remind ourselves about this struggle for equality. I highly recommend Mudbound to Southern book lovers everywhere.
This story, both delicate and brutal, is told from several different viewpoints. I didn't realize that at first, and found myself confused in the beginning because my preconceived idea was that this was Laura's story. But when does anyone's story exist in isolation? Such is the case here as the threads interweave to tell the tale. Though not easy to read because of the subject matter, Jordan's debut novel is a beautifully written story of heartbreak, hatred and survival
His wife Laura is happy living in the city and stunned when Henry makes the decision to move without consulting her. To make matters worse, Henry's mean and racist father will be accompanying them. Laura finds it impossible to learn to love the land and longs to return to the city. Upon seeing the home she is to live in, she remarks:
"To me, it looked no different from the other land we'd passed. There were brown fields and unpainted sharecroppers' shacks with dirt yards. Women who might have been any age from thirty to sixty hung laundry from sagging clotheslines while gaggles of dirty barefoot children watched listlessly from the porch. After a time we came to a shack that was larger than the others, though no less decrepit. It had a deserted air."
Not until the arrival of Henry's brother Jamie, a WWII bomber pilot who is trying to forget those years but is haunted by the demons of his past, does Laura see a reprieve from her discouraging situation.
Hap and Florence Jackson are tenant farmers on Henry's land. Their son, Ronsel, returns from the war to help his parents, and is reminded quickly of the cruelty of Delta justice.
Hillary Jordan's debut novel, winner of the Bellwether Prize for fiction, revolves around these characters, who tell the story from their own points of view. She expertly develops the themes of loss, forgiveness, and the fleeting idea of home and how its meaning changes according to time and circumstance. Jordan also deftly illustrates the idea of man vs. man and man vs. nature with distinct clarity. Laura decides to start her story at the beginning:
"My father-in-law was murdered because I was born plain rather than pretty. That's one possible beginning. There are others: Because Henry saved Jamie from drowning in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Because Pappy sold the land that should have been Henry's. Because Jamie flew too many bombing missions in the war. Because a Negro named Ronsel Jackson shone too brightly. Because a man neglected his wife, and a father betrayed his son, and a mother exacted vengeance. I suppose the beginning depends on who's telling the story."
It is impossible to believe that this is Hillary Jordan's first published novel. Her storytelling abilites are only surpassed by her lyrical writing and nothing can prepare you for the stunning conclusion. Highly recommended.
Ronsel is returning not to a hero’s welcome, but to a township full of people anxious to put him in his place – some to fulfil their own sense of propriety, some out of hatred, others for Ronsel’s ‘own good health’. The racism in this novel swings from entrenched and frustrating to harrowing and awful but while it is, in a sense, the theme of the book, it is Laura – the young white mother of two small girls – on whom the focus of the book falls, her relationships with Henry, the husband obsessed with the soil he owns, with Pappy, her sly and bitter father-in-law, with Florence, Ronsel’s mother, who reluctantly comes to work for her and with Jamie, whose charm and warmth – now a shell inside which he suffers the resulting guilt of piloting a bomber during the war – makes Laura respond in ways she cannot even wish to control
The format of ‘Mudbound’ can seem a little clumsy at times; switching from one character’s POV to another necessitates some overlap on events, and sometimes this meshing is a little awkward; where it matters, though, Jordan picks up the threads and makes them work for her rather than against; and this is really the only flaw in this first novel. Overall, it is engrossing.
Each character has been drawn with a flair for finding sympathy in the reader – as Laura herself reminds us, each story begins with another and another, each person’s attitude and reactions in some way built by others before them. The story is mesmerising and tense and I will gladly read Jordan’s next book in the hope of more strong storytelling.
Memphis bred, Laura McAllen never expected to marry, but then Henry comes along and treats her with love and kindness. Although she doesn't know what to expect from marriage, she learns and accepts her new husband. Then he drops a bomb - they are moving to a farm in the Mississippi Delta. He never consulted her and she is fiercely angry,but won't show it. She bites her tongue & hopes for the best, but the farm is a disaster and she is devastated. On top of this, her lazy, opinionated, and miserable father-in-law will be living with them as well. She is appalled at the situation, until Jamie, her brother-in-law returns from the war to live on the farm with them. He is the bright light in her life, and she realizes that she is in love with him. Jamie returns her feelings, but is a disaster, emotionally, due to the war. He drinks too much, he sleeps around, but the real issue is that he makes friends with Ronsel, the son of the black share-farmers on their land. Even though Ronsel fought in the war, is polite, and well-behaved man, he is still treated as a lower class citizen in this small Mississippi town. Their friendhip is entirely unacceptable to many of the leading white men in town, including Laura's father-in-law. The events that occur in this book are shocking, yet so close to the truth that it is scary.
Henry is handsome, quiet, and college educated. My brother Teddy brought him to dinner because they got along so well at work. At 41 years, Henry was working for the Corps of Engineers building bridges, levees, and airports in the outlying area of Memphis. Well, from the looks I gathered at dinner, he was ready to build a fence around me. How little did I know.
We married, settled down in our own house in Memphis, and I had two little girls. Things again were comfortable until December 25, 1945. On arrival to the annual Christmas dinner at the home of Henry’s sister, Eboline, in Greenville, Mississippi, we were affronted by Pappy, my cantankerous father-in-law who informed us, “Eboline’s husband’s gone and ruint Christmas, killing himself on the eve of Jesus’ birth.”
After weeks of settling Eboline’s affairs, Henry returned home in a new truck. Before I could quiz him, he shocked me with a passionate kiss. This is not my Henry, something was foul. He then blurted out, “I’ve bought a farm!”
The plan was simple. Live in a rental house close to Eboline in Greenville, and Henry would commute to the farm 40 miles away. Pappy would be moving in with us, since Eboline’s move to a smaller house, and I would put up with his criticism of me and the girls.
The rental house was a two-story Victorian with wrap-around porch and azaleas in front. As we climbed the steps, we noticed a light on. While Henry worked the key, a man opened the door from inside, and he wasn’t happy. See, the house was sold to him the previous week which made us trespassers.
Out of 300 dollars and forced to live in one of the sharecropper's houses on the farm, I’m not happy. Matter-of-fact, I’m constantly angry. Dang dirt is in our clothes, laying atop all the furniture, and giving us all tans. Even my tow-colored sweet babies have brown hair. When Henry suggests we call the place “Fair Fields” my mumbled answer becomes family legend. “More like Mudbound.”
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan is one of the best southern novels I have read in years. Better than "The Secret Life of Bees," she has successfully written a racial tale akin to Flannery O’Connor and Erskine Caldwell. The perfect book for discussion, too.
Surely if Kingsolver is awarding an author a prize, it shouldn't be for a book she more or less edited. Just seems wrong.
Having said that, MUDBOUND is certainly a work that addresses issues of social justice, and so if that is the overriding criteria, then I suppose I holds, but it says nothing about the quality of the novel itself, does it?
I enjoyed the book, as a quick read. The multiple points of view is well handled, although by the end I thought the narrative would have been better served by fewer perspectives. So many voices watered down the tension, for me. As well, this story of two brothers and one woman has been told many times before, and better -- I'm thinking of ON THE NIGHT PLAIN by J. Robert Lennon -- so there was little new there. Nor was there much new in the portrayal of racism in the south. Jordan competently describes it, and certainly the climax scene is as horrific and terrifying as one might imagine, but it's not new territory.
I kept thinking there was a deeper, more thoughtful book lurking just under the surface that Jordan didn't quite get to. However, perhaps this is harsh criticism. It is her first novel and frankly, it's much better than THE HELP, which uses 'eye-dialect' and never really strikes a realistic chord when focusing on the African American characters (I understand the film manages this better, but I didn't see it). Jordan does better here, infusing her black characters with dignity and a simmering rage that rings utterly true. Still, Ronsel, one of the POV black characters, makes a decision at the end of the book which is unexplained, and I found that odd.
In spite of this criticism -- that the book should not be awarded a prize from someone so closely associated with it, and that there is little new here -- I think Jordan has a wonderful eye for character detail, and a fine prose style. I'll look for more of her work in the future.
It begins with two brothers digging a grave in the pouring rain for their father. We then go to flashback, narrated first by Laura, the daughter-in-law of the deceased. Other characters are gradually introduced, and the stories of the main characters are told through their own voices. In fact, much of the book is the introduction of each of the characters. So, we’re waiting and waiting for the action to begin.
Two of the characters, Jamie and Ronsel, are returning World War II heroes. Jamie was a pilot, and Ronsel was a tank commander. While they have much in common, including what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, they are separated by the great divide of race which, in 1940’s Mississippi, is all-important. Their experiences during and after the war contribute to the plot advancement of this novel.
Laura and Henry own a farm in Mississippi. While Henry loves farming and farm life, Laura has nicknamed the farm “Mudbound”. She is stuck in a ramshackle farm house with her two young daughters and Henry’s father, Pappy. When Jamie returns from Europe, he joins their household. Ronsel is the son of Florence and Hap, Henry’s tenant farmers.
So the events of the novel lead eventually to the death of Pappy. Unfortunately we never hear Pappy’s voice. He really is the central character. I get that he’s dead from the start of the novel and therefore can make no contribution to the flashbacks. And yes, he is a mean, ornery racist, but if the book were structured differently, we might have had some insight into his character. He remains two-dimensional and dull. I just think the main character should be more interesting.
So-I recommend Mudbound, but not whole heartedly.
Laura has resigned herself to life as a spinster when she meets Henry McAllan in 1939. She eventually accepts his proposal of marriage and they settle down to urban life in Memphis, Tennessee. Family upheaval and Henry's desire to own a farm lands them, their two children and Henry's sly, cruel father in rural Mississippi on a cotton farm. There is no electricity, no running water and when the river rises, they are cut off from the town. There are tenant farmers on the land as well, black and white. Racial tensions and long held prejudices run deep in the Mississippi Delta.
Mudbound opens with Henry and his brother Jamie burying their father on the farm. Jordan's descriptions paint tangible pictures. " The soil was so wet from all the rain it was digging into raw meat". Laura's description of the farm also paints a vivid picture. "When it rained, as it often did, the yard turned into a thick gumbo, with the house floating in it like a soggy cracker"
From that opening scene, we relive how Henry and Jamie came to be burying their father. Each character has a voice in the telling of the story. Henry, Jamie, Laura, Florence and Hap - the black tenant farmers on the McAllan farm and Ronsel - their son. Ronsel and Jamie have both just returned home from the war. Both men have been changed by their experiences and form an unlikely friendship. In the Jim Crow south, this is unacceptable and drives the story to it's inevitable conclusion.
I could not put this book down. The characters,their lives, emotions and upheaval are so richly painted. The historical facts of the deep south in the late 1940's are woven into this stunning debut novel. Jordan's writing captured and held me until the last page. I cannot wait to read her next novel.
Mudbound evoked strong emotions in this reader. The past is still happening.
Jordan won the 2006 Bellwether Prize awarded to literature of social change. This founder of this prize is Barbara Kingsolver.
The author uses multiple narrators to tell parts of the story from their own perspectives, recounting the build-up of events that led to tragedy, so I knew from the beginning that it would not have a "happily ever after" ending. Even though I could see the flaws in each character, I developed a degree of sympathy for each one because I had been given a glimpse of the inner person -- except for Henry's father, Pappy, who is the only adult in either family who was not one of the story's narrators. I never felt any sympathy for him.
One aspect of the book continues to nag at me. The author several times contrasted the racism Ronsel endured among the rural and small town Mississippi whites with the acceptance he found among European women. I wasn't in England or Germany during World War II to see how African American soldiers were treated there. I was in England several decades later, though, and observed how Indian, Pakistani, and West Indian residents were treated by some of the white British citizens. The Jim Crow South did not have a monopoly on racist attitudes. Even though the German women in the novel were more accepting of Ronsel and other African American soldiers, one of the reasons the American G.I.s were in Germany was the persecution of Jews under the Hitler regime. Racism can flourish in any place in any era. Books like this one remind us of its evils and warn us against committing the same sins.
I really can't understand the excitement this book has generated as everything in the book seemed inevitable, it was humourless, and trite. But, I still liked it.
Then Laura's brother-in-law, Jamie, returns home from World War II, like a beacon of light in her hardscrabble subsistence. Florence's son, Ronsel, returns, too, with medals, but to a much colder, ominous welcome by the community. The lingering trauma of battle brings the men together as friends, a relationship that local prejudice will not allow, and eventually leads to tragedy for both families.
This is the best debut I've read in a long, long time. It rings sharp and true and wrenching, and well deserves the Bellwether Prize it received.
Within the framework of the entrenched, institutionalized racism of the midcentury deep south, the novel explores the dynamics of power and the bases on which people claim it. The least sympathetic characters baldly assert privilege on the basis of race first and gender second, while others occupy a middle ground where they eschew some of the hard-line rules of race relations but ultimately can't bring themselves to treat black people with the full dignity due human beings. Those who defy the system, one white and one black, are almost destroyed as a result.
A secondary focus of the story is tracing hopes and expectations as they inevitably fail to materialize as envisioned, but instead twist and send lives spiraling in completely different directions. It's only at the very end that the sequence of events makes sense as an unbroken chain of causality, allowing us to look back and recognize the one pivotal moment on which everything else hung.
This kind of book has me thinking, Do we want to write books about the past that show such a limited view of what "we" can be? I've decided we do. I think sharing the truth even in fiction is shocking. I'm reminded what we are capable of at our worst and that I would not want to be a part of world like that.