Mudbound, Hillary Jordan, Algonquin Books
Hillary Jordan’s prize-winning debut novel, Mudbound, is a compelling and disturbing portrayal of life in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s and the bitter racial divide that marked this period of our history. Jordan’s story is convincingly told from the alternating viewpoints of her characters: the white McAllan family and the black Jackson family.
Memphis-born Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband’s Mississippi Delta farm–a place she nicknames Mudbound because of the constant muck that covers everything. With no running water, inside bathroom, or electricity, this is not the life Laura knew or expected. She tries to makes the best of her situation, a task that becomes more difficult when her calloused and bigoted father-in law comes to live with them.
The Jacksons, the black sharecropping family who live and work on the McAllan’s land, struggle to make ends meet. Hap farms the land while his wife Florence works as Laura’s maid. When Hap ends up bedridden, the family’s struggle intensifies.
While the McAllans and Jacksons face hardships, they maintain a precarious but peaceful coexistence until Henry McAllan’s younger brother Jamie, and Ronsel, the Jackson’s oldest son, return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura’s brother-in-law, possesses qualities her husband lacks. He is handsome, daring, and charming. He is also haunted by memories of combat and drinks excessively to chase away his demons. Ronsel Jackson returns a war hero, but his brave defense of his country does nothing to change how he is viewed in the Jim Crow South. When he dares to exit a store though the front door reserved for whites, the anger of the locals remind him little has changed in the Mississippi Delta. Ronsel reflects:
I never thought I’d miss it so much. I don’t mean Nazi Germany, you’d have to be crazy to miss a place like that. I mean who I was when I was over there. There I was a liberator, a hero. In Mississippi I was just another nigger pushing a plow. And the longer I stayed, the longer that’s all I was.
Ronsel and Jamie embark on an unlikely friendship that continues despite warnings and objections not only from their families, but also from other townsfolk who disapprove of their bond. The novel accelerates in a breathtaking pace toward a conclusion that is both horrifying and unforgettable.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in the skill with which Jordan reveals her characters through six alternating voices. This technique allows the reader to see characters as not only they appear to themselves, but also as they appear to the other characters who narrate the story. The result is a more dimensional view of each individual. Laura, for example, sees Pappy’s overt racism, but she would not describe herself in those same terms. It is only when we witness Laura through Florence’s eyes that we see Laura’s more subtle acts of racism.
If I have any complaint at all, it is that the characters tend to be too clearly divided between heroes and villains. Pappy, for instance, is a bigoted and hateful man who shows kindness to no one. While his complete lack of any goodness makes it easy for the reader to cheer his ultimate demise, I think it is perhaps too easy. I find characters at their most compelling and authentic when they possess some balance of good and bad traits.
It is little surprise that Mudbound was awarded the 2006 Bellwether Prize, founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize literature of social responsibility. Jordan has employed the finest storytelling skills to illuminate a dark and shameful part of our history. Mudbound is a stellar accomplishment by a gifted new novelist.
Jayne Pupek is the author of the recently released novel, Tomato Girl (Algonquin Books), and a book of poems titled Forms of Intercession (Mayapple Press). She resides near Richmond, Virginia.