The men and women of each family relate their versions of events and we are drawn into their lives as they become players in a tragedy on the grandest scale. As Kingsolver says of Hillary Jordan, "Her characters walked straight out of 1940s Mississippi and into the part of my brain where sympathy and anger and love reside, leaving my heart racing. They are with me still."
Topics: Mississippi, American South, 1940s, Heartbreaking, Tense, Multiple Perspectives, Debut, Epic, Tragic, Dysfunctional Family, Sexism, Veterans, Discrimination, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Farming, Soldiers, Civil and Political Rights, Courage, Brothers, Love, Adultery, Race Relations, Death, Family, War, Female Protagonist, and American History
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I think the pace of the novel is something that could have been improved upon. I felt that the majority of the first 200 pages or so was background information designed to introduce the characters and their motivations, but not much happens. And then, all at once, in a fury many things happen. The consequence of this is that too much for me was left unexplored about what occurred as a result of a startling series of events, and I was left wondering how the characters truly felt about the chaos that occurred in the last 100 pages. I understand that a lot of the background was absolutely necessary as groundwork for the events in those 100 pages, because without it the characters would have felt flat. But I would have enjoyed a longer exploration at the end of what the characters were left with in the aftermath.
I also wish that Hap, Florence and Pappy had been drawn more clearly as characters. Pappy is clearly the bogeyman of our tale, and while many stories need one of those, for this particular one I felt he was overdone. What makes someone so coldblooded, so despicable as Pappy? The book clearly shows close to nothing redeemable about his character, and when you're shooting for something realistic, it should be better explained why this is the case. Also, for me Hap and Florence's relationship was better portrayed by Jordan than the two characters themselves. While the relationship is an excellent foil to Henry and Laura's, the characters could use a bit of fleshing out. How did Hap feel about being constantly being asked to berate his son for his "misbehavior"? How did Florence, a strong and willful woman, feel about being constantly kept down by her gender and her race? I feel like Florence could have been the best character in the novel if Jordan had dug into her a little more.
But overall, this was a wonderful story and I will certainly read Jordan's next novel. The two criticisms I explained above are merely because I felt this book could have been extraordinary with just a little more put into it.more
Through alternating voices, each fairly unique, Jordan offers a fresh look at an old—yet never trite—subject. While the social issues largely revolve around ethnicity, Jordan also addresses sexism, class division, war and the trauma from war. Against a well-painted landscape, the story of Mudbound unravels at a wonderful pace; when the climax drops, the reader feels as though he is living through the drama in real-time.
Some turns were a little too convenient—characters in the right place (or wrong place) at the right time, Points A, B, and C connecting too easily, and so forth—but it still worked. There were enough surprises and original takes on the subject that the story was largely believable.more
I was just weary of it.
But a galley came in for this book, and I wish I could tell you what made me bring it home to read, but I honestly don't remember. Maybe it was the first paragraph.
"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: Howdy boys! Remember me? The thought of it kept us digging even after the blisters on our palms had burst, reformed and burst again. Every shovelful was an agony -- the old man, getting in his last licks. Still, I was glad of the pain. It shoved away thought and memory."
Well, this was intriguing, so I flipped a few more pages in and stumbled on this:
"When I think of the farm, I think of mud. Limning my husband's fingernails and encrusting the children's knees and hair. Sucking at my feet like a greedy newborn on the breast. Marching in boot-shaped patches across the plank floors of the house. There was no defeating it. The mud coated everything. I dreamed in brown."
It was at this point I got flashes of Ron Rash's brilliant One Foot in Eden, and my resolve to step away from novels that mention Jim Crow on their jacket blurbs faded away. Sometimes it is a good thing I don't stick to a plan.
Hillary Jordan's Bellwether Prize winning novel subtly captures all the nuances of the South -- the uneasy inter-reliance the races have always had on each other; the familial ties that often defy explanation; and the realization that it was the fertile ground for change tilled during World War II in which the seeds of social change were planted.
Mudbound is written in the alternating voices of the McAllan and Jackson families. They are bound together by the sharecropping arrangement between the two families, one white (the McAllans), the other black (the Jacksons). Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson have both served their time in service to the country, and they each find themselves returning to a home that is at once familiar as air and foreign as Europe once was for them. Ronsel, especially, must cope with the memory of the sense of equality he enjoyed while in Europe and the abrupt return to the status quo of an unchanged South.
Equally as off-balance in this world is Laura McAllan. She was raised in gentility, and the family land to which her husband is pledged is a far cry from anything she had ever known. Married to Jamie's brother, whose solid nature has, with familiarity, become thuddingly dull, Laura is rejuvenated by the handsome returning war veteran, Jamie. In him she sees the possibility of an awakening.
The stage is set for disaster when Jamie and Ronsel strike up a friendship forged by the bonds of war, and from the moment that is set in motion until the final paragraph, I was riveted.
The real treasure in this novel, however, lies in Jordan's masterful writing which captures every subtle gradation of the nature of the relationships between families of different races who depend on each other with a mixture of respect, fear, loathing, and affection. Nowhere is this dichotomy more eloquent than in a passage in which Laura speaks of Florence Jackson's daughter, Lilly May, who often accompanies her mother to the McAllan's house while Florence cleans the house. Laura speaks of Lilly May's beautiful voice:
"The first time I head her, I was playing the piano and teaching the girls the words to 'Amazing Grace' when Lilly May joined in from the front porch, where she was shelling peas. I've always prided myself on my singing voice but when I heard hers I was so humbled I was struck dumb. Her voice had no earthly clay in it, just a sure sweet grace that was both a yielding and a promise. Anyone who believes that Negroes are not God's children never heard Lilly May Jackson sing to Him.
This is not to say that I thought of Florence and her family as equal to me and mine. I called her Florence and she called me Miz McAllan. She and Lilly May didn't use our outhouse, but did their business in the bushes out back. And when we sat down to the noon meal, the two of them ate outside on the porch."
Mudbound took my breath away, and if Ms. Jordan's novel doesn't wind up with several more honors for it I'll be surprised.more