Hillary Jordan’s book won the Bellwether Publication Prize, an award founded by Barbara Kingsolver for novels dealing with social issues. If Kingsolver’s imprimateur isn’t enough to get you reading, well, what is?
World War II has just ended, bringing war heroes Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson back to their farming families in the Mississippi Delta. McAllan, white, joins his older brother Henry, himself a veteran of World War I, Henry’s bride Laura, and Pappy, their racist, son-of-a-bitch father, on Henry’s recently purchased farm. Henry loves the land and is overjoyed to be growing cotton in the rural Delta mud. Laura, uprooted from genteel city life and her family, is unhappy and resentful, reduced to living in a shack lacking plumbing or electricity, tending to Pappy’s endless demands.
For Ronsel Jackson, who was part of the 761st Black Panther Battalion, life with his family, sharecroppers on Henry McAllan’s land, is a crushing return to the racism permeating Delta life. His father, Hap, advises him to lay low. His inability to do so establishes a plotline that keeps the reader turning pages to the bittersweet end.
Jordan tells Mudbound from various viewpoints: Laura, Henry, and Jamie all take turns on the McAllan side. Hap, Hap’s wife, Florence, and Ronsel take up the Jackson end. What emerges is a faceted story of the damages wrought by war and racism. Jordan’s great gift is her ability to inhabit such disparate characters so well, seamlessly using language to convey their distinctions. When Florence, a midwife and lay healer, first meets Laura, she observes:
“First time I laid eyes on Laura McAllan she was out of her head with mama worry. (Laura’s daugthers had whooping cough.) When that mama worry takes ahold of a woman you can’t expect no sense from her. She’ll do or say anything at all and you just better hope you ain’t in her way.”
Hap, just after taking a bad fall, informs us “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughtly spirit before a fall.”
Racism is as much a part of life as the endless, worrisome rain. Even Laura, a gentle, musical woman who relies on Florence for household help, remarks:
“Anyone who believes that Negroes are not God’s children never heard Lilly Mae Jackson sing to him. This is not to say I thought of Florence and her family as equal to me and mine.” Indeed, Florence and Lilly Mae are not permitted to use the McAllan outhouse or eat at their table.
It is Jamie’s return to the McAllan household that brings an already simmering pot to a boil. Outwardly charismatic, flirtatious, and charming, Jamie is suffering from war-induced PTSD and increasingly severe alcoholism. He is soon in trouble with the law. His burgeoning friendship with Ronsel sparks the town’s ire. Both men ignore warnings to avoid one another, leading to the novel’s gruesome climax.
Jordan slips bits of social commentary in around the edges, as well. When Hap becomes seriously ill after a visit from the hateful Doc Turpin, Laura finds Doc Pearlman, who speaks with a funny accent and wears “a little knitted cap…like a doily…”. When Hap nervously informs him that Ronsel has fought the Austrians, Pearlman replies “I hope he killed a great many of them, a remark that leaves the Jacksons shaking their heads over crazy white people.
A woman’s duty to her husband is woven through the novel. Henry is well aware of Laura’s unhappiness on the farm, even afraid of it, but it never occurs to him to ask her what she wants. He stands by as his father verbally abuses Laura and frightens their small daughters. He endures—even accepts—Pappy’s appallingly racist remarks. He is, as Florence notes, “landsick”, his urge to tame the Delta into cotton bolls verging on the pathological.
Jordan’s other great gift is making her characters likable despite their failings, so we understand Laura’s narrowmindedness, Henry’s chauvinsism, Jamie’s ultimately killing weaknesses. Only Pappy and his buddies are thoroughly despicable. If only they weren’t so reminiscent of more recent events: it is impossible to read Mudbound without images of the Ninth Ward flooding one’s inner eye or recalling the remarks made by former First Lady Barbara Bush:
“What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.