Saturday, August 9, 2008
Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan a Bellwether Prize winner for fiction is a disturbing novel of racial hatred and historical importance. This award is given to a novel that addresses social justice and after reading her book, it is obvious why she deserves this prestigious prize.
Henry McAllan moves his wife and children to Mississippi, where he has bought a cotton farm on the fertile Delta to fulfill a lifelong dream. The time is late 1940s and the rules of white and black society are clearly delineated. Everyone knows their social places and gender roles, segregation is assumed and seemingly second nature as blacks and whites coexist in the community as long as the unwritten law is followed. This is the southern lifestyle as it was during the Jim Crow pre-civil rights south. Segregation is as mudbound as the land itself. It is deeply rooted in the culture of anyone born into the southern landscape. Laura follows her husband to Mississippi from the civilized world she is accustomed with no questions asked. Florence and Hap accept the sub human treatment given them as a natural part of life.
Jordan’s craft is to tell the story from the point of view of the characters. In this way you become intimate with the souls of each family member, knowing how they think and feel. The McAllans, Henry, Laura and Jamie and the Jacksons, Hap, Florence and Ronsel.
We cringe when we hear the language used by Pappy, Henry’s father the vile hateful white supremacist bigot. We wiggle uncomfortably when the man, Ronsel Jackson is called boy or Florence is called a nigger or any other racially derogatory moniker. It is hard to understand the thinking behind Laura’s hesitation of allowing Florence to nurse her very sick children because of her color.
Mudbound is the story of Jamie and Ronsel, both soldiers who are back from WWII. For the time being they are helping out on their family’s farms. Ronsel served in an all black unit in Germany and while there has a relationship with a white woman. This is considered taboo in his native Mississippi, but in Europe, he feels like a man, not a black man, color is not noticed. When he returns home, he is treated as a boy again, because in the white world he is not a man, he is a black boy again.
Jamie and Ronsel become friends, but must face the racist rules society imposes on them. Ronsel can’t ride in the cab of Jamie’s pickup truck because of the color of his skin. One day while driving together they are spotted by Pappy who is wrought with disgust and disbelief. Jamie and Ronsel are warned to stop riding together and threatened with consequences by Pappy and Henry. When they continue to break the racial rules the penalties are unrelenting, horrifically unfathomable and life threatening.
Before Civil Rights Laws, this is how life was. As difficult and hard as it is to face our past, it is disturbing and offensive to read now. This book captivated my attention from the very beginning and the momentum never stopped. Jordan has captured the spirit of the time and brings you there. You feel the precarious tolerance of life that existed between whites and blacks, always leery of the next incident. Mudbound had me on the edge and will be etched in my memory for sometime, perhaps forever.
Hillary Jordan's Website
Mule Contest: The mule is mentioned on page 130 when Henry tells Hap to have one of his boys come fetch it.