Algonquin Books, March 2008, $21.95
Mudbound grabs the reader by the throat, beginning with the burial of an unlamented patriarch. Who is this man being hurriedly buried in the rain, in a makeshift coffin? And why do those burying him seem less grief-stricken than relieved?
Soon we are given a hint. The grave they’re digging turns out to be occupied: the skeleton bears shackles and the skull has been shattered by gunfire. Probably, the man’s sons agree, a runaway slave. For an instant, they hesitate: There is nothing their father would have hated more, but it’s pouring rain and they’re out of time. Maybe, says one, it was an escaped convict. Their father would not have minded sharing eternity with an escaped convict, at least compared to a person with dark skin.
The insanity and complete irrationality of ingrained racism and the tortured logic that results are at the heart of Mudbound. Yet the novel is in no way a politically correct screed. It’s a moving and beautifully drawn portrait of a Southern tragedy in the 1940s, told in a series of first-person confessions. Tivoli resident Hillary Jordan sneaks us into the minds of black and white, male and female, as the storm clouds gather and the mud thickens.
It’s also a story of generational tension. Sons of neighboring families, Ronsel and Jamie both fought in World War II and came home forever changed. Jamie, who is white, suffers from post-traumatic stress. Ronsel, while not immune to the horrors of war, found a freedom from the racism of the deep South as a soldier in Europe that has given him a new sense of self-esteem. The two become friends, to the extent that they can manage—not something their elders will allow.
Caught up in it all is Laura, wife of Jamie’s brother and a cultured soul who never thought she’d end up a virtual slave to a hardscrabble Mississippi farm and an old man whose orneriness rises to the level of evil. He would, Laura tells us, order her daughter onto his lap simply because he enjoyed her fear.
Laura’s calm, loving voice carries us through from the first time we meet her, when she reflects on the fact that any tragedy can be traced back through generations and would probably be explained differently—but with equal truth—by different observers. And there is plenty of tragedy to observe here, from murder and mutilation to invisible walls that keep the characters from realizing their hopes.
Jordan sweeps the reader into her story with tenderness and power. The multiple voices work well; one might wish she’d included the primary villain as one of the narrators, but had she attempted to get as deeply into his heart as she did into those of the more sympathetic characters, she’d probably need years of therapy. These people live and breathe; their angers, shocks, and setbacks become our own. At the end of the tunnel of grief there is light, and we are allowed to share that too.
Mudbound won the Bellwether Prize and was chosen by the American Booksellers Association as a March Book Sense Pick; one hopes it continues to get the acclaim it deserves. Jordan’s first novel carries a wealth of subtle wisdom about race, men, women, marriage, war, and social class—all wrapped in a package of smooth, accessible storytelling that goes down easily, sticking to your ribs.
Hillary Jordan will read from Mudbound at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck on March 7 at 7:30pm.