Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan

In the opening scene of Mudbound, a first novel by Hillary Jordan, Jamie and Henry McAllen are digging their father's a field at their farm...and while digging find the bones of another unfortunate buried there. The remainder of the book--set primarily in the post-World War II South and told in the voices of six characters--recounts the events that led to the rather gruesome opening scene. The six narrators--Jamie, Henry, and Henry's wife Laura (all white) and Hap, Florence, and Ronsel Jackson (all African-American)--are well-drawn, though characters not given a narrator's role are rather flat.

Central to the story is the racism that permeates the Mississippi community to which Jamie and Ronsel return after serving in World War II. While Jamie's war experiences seemed to feed his self-doubt (and alcoholism), Ronsel's showed him a new vision for living as an African-American man. The two quickly become friends ( Jamie, while progressive compared to other characters, does still harbor racist beliefs), but their friendship comes to a tragic end.

The two female narrators are also powerful voices. Laura was a "spinster" when she met and married Henry, and she delights in married life and motherhood. When her husband relocates the family from her home town of Memphis and brings his despicable father Pappy to live on the mudbound farm he has bought in Mississippi, she is angry and deeply unhappy (with good reason--the place sounds truly awful). She depends on Florence for housekeeping and medical help, but Florence clearly recognizes the limits of their "relationship."

Jordan uses some heavy-handed foreshadowing (one of my pet peeves). She doesn't need to have Hap tell us "That was the last time I ever heard my son's voice." We know something bad is going to happen to Ronsel from the moment he returns to Mississippi. While it is Pappy's grave being dug in the first scene, the reader knows that the real tragedy will occur elsewhere.

While I wouldn't call this a great book, it would be a good selection for book groups, providing plenty of both substantive and stylistic fodder for conversation.

Favorite passage:
"Henry had all the self-confidence that I lacked. He was certain of an astonishing number of things. Packards are the best-made American cars. Meat ought not to be eaten rare. Irving Berlin's "God Bless Ameirca" should be the national anthem instead of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is too difficult to sing. The Yankees will win the World Series. There will be another Great War in Europe, and the United States would do well to stay out of it. Blue is your color, Laura."

And still she married him...and wore blue.

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