Book Review - Mudbound: Murky morality
Prize-winner Hillary Jordan deepens the South
Hillary Jordan thought the phone call was from a telemarketer.
“Is this Hillary Jordan?” the voice asked.
“This is Hillary Jordan?”
“Yes?” she replied, irritated and a little rude.
“This is Barbara Kingsolver. I’m calling to tell you you’ve won the Bellwether Prize.”
The Bellwether Prize is an award that recognizes unpublished literature of social responsibility. Barbara Kingsolver, critically acclaimed author of multiple works including The Poisionwood Bible and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, founded the prize in 2000 and names a winner biennially. The winner receives $25,000 and a book deal with a major publishing house. The most recent recipient, in 2006, was Hillary Jordan, a newcomer to the literary scene with her debut novel, Mudbound, published earlier this month by Algonquin Books.
“It’s been such a joy working with Kingsolver because she’s been involved in helping me revise the novel,” Jordan says over the phone as she packs to go on her first book tour. “Her insights have been so valuable in helping me to shape the book from the second draft, which is what she saw, to the 11th draft, which is on sale right now.”
Set against the backdrop of the intrinsically racist Deep South, Mudbound is full of passion and lust, betrayal and redemption, murder and tragedy. The novel is the story of Laura McAllen, a city-bred woman turned farmhand when her stubborn husband, Henry, moves their family from Memphis to a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta. The McAllens, including their two young daughters and Henry’s spiteful, nasty father, Pappy, live in a three-room shack cut off from the rest of the world when the rains come and the river floods. When Henry’s younger brother Jamie returns home from World War II and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Ronsel, the son of a black sharecropper who also has returned from fighting in Europe, the McAllens’ day-to-day rural life is shattered by controversy and violence.
Mudbound is full of rich details and dimensional, engaging characters, and it sucks readers in like quicksand from its opening scene: “Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep. Any shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood.” Evoking Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Mudbound begins with a flood, a body that needs to be buried and a tale told from different perspectives. But Jordan is too humble to make that allusion herself.
“Sure, As I Lay Dying is very similar in format to Mudbound with the alternating voices,” Jordan says. “But I would not compare my writing to Faulkner’s by any stretch of the imagination. For one thing, I wanted to do something more accessible and more of a page turner.”
Jordan gracefully weaves subtle racism alongside overt hatred and bigotry, showing that even noble characters with the best intentions are no match for their racist upbringings. Everyone plays a part in the wretched culmination of events.
“My grandparents were from that era and they were very good people, but they were also deeply bigoted,” Jordan says. “That’s something I wanted to capture in the book – this deeply ingrained racism of otherwise good people. All the white characters in the book are racist. I wanted to muddy everybody up. And the black characters as well. I wanted them all to be complex, as people are.
The African-American characters aren’t the only oppressed figures in the novel. Laura’s growing self-awareness and autonomy simultaneously evolve alongside Ronsel’s demand for civil rights, alluding to the similar frustrations of both women’s and blacks’ social status. “The book is really about who gets to speak and who doesn’t,” Jordan explains. “In the Jim Crow South, blacks had no voice, and Laura in many ways has no voice in her own faith, and she grows increasingly angry about it. There’s a lot of power in terms of who gets to speak and who doesn’t, and I wanted to show that with racial issues as well as sexual politics.”
Jordan started writing Mudbound almost a decade ago, without realizing what she was beginning. While working on her MFA at Columbia University, a creative writing assignment to write three pages in the voice of a family member sparked Jordan’s memory of stories of her grandparents’ move to a rundown farm they called “Mudbound.” She chose to write the assignment from her grandmother’s perspective, and started off with the catching line, “When I think of the farm, I think of mud.” What evolved, 11 drafts and seven years later, is 324 pages of a fictionalized look at farm life, similar in construct to her grandparents’ situation, but vastly different in terms of plot. “My characters’ lives are considerably more tumultuous than my grandparents’,” Jordan says. “For example, nobody was murdered in my family, which is how Mudbound starts off.”
When Jordan mailed in her submission for the Bellwether Prize along with the $30 entry fee, she thought, “There goes 30 bucks.” Even after hearing she was a finalist, she never thought she’d win. She was shocked when she got the call from Barbara Kingsolver. “I think my response was pretty eloquent,” Jordan says, “I said ‘Oh my god!’ like any beauty pageant contestant who’s ever won.”