Mudbound - Book Review
Hilary Jordan’s novel Mudbound was recently made into a very compelling movie. I must confess, I found the novel through the movie, which is the opposite of how it usually (and should) happen. Mudbound takes on a variety of salient topics, utilizing a number of unique voices. The book is narrated by different characters in the novel. The writing, like the topics it addresses, is graphic and visceral. It was a quick read, and surprisingly, I think the movie did the novel proper justice, which is not often the case.
The novel tells the story of two different families brought together by economic necessity on the one hand, and by the shared experiences of their favorite sons on the other. The McAllans are a white, upper-class Memphis family whose husband Henry (trained as an engineer) decides to move them down to the Mississippi Delta so that he can take up his true life’s calling: to own and work a cotton farm. The farm’s tenants include the Jackson family, a black family that has resided in the Delta since the days of slavery. Henry MacAllan is old school and not much of one to socialize with black people. His wife Laura, on the other hand, relies on Florence Jackson, the wife of Hap Jackson, to help her run the household. They eventually develop a cordial relationship based strictly on mutual respect, not friendship. The families’ relationship becomes more complex and entwined when Henry’s younger brother Jamie and the Jackson’s oldest son Ronsel return from the war in Europe. Jamie is suffering from extreme PTSD and he is miserable in Mississippi. Ronsel, who acquitted himself admirably in the war also suffers, but most of his suffering stems from the delusion that he fought the war partially so that blacks could live better lives in the America after the war. This delusion is made clear before he has even spent one hour back in his hometown. Jamie and Ronsel, bonded by their shared experiences, become friends, spending evenings drinking together in an old sawmill, thus breaking all the old Delta taboos about race relations. Meanwhile, the intrigue heightens due to the mutual attraction between the young, dashing Jamie and his sister-in-law Laura.
Jordan chose to tell the story from the perspective of all six main characters, and this makes for interesting reading, as the chapters flip from person to person. We get to hear from the husbands (Henry and Hap) and from the prodigal sons returned from war in Europe (Jamie and Ronsel), but the true heart and soul of the narrative are the two voices of the family matriarchs, Laura and Florence. In fact, I would have preferred the entire narrative was conducted by these two women. Jordan paints a realistic picture of tenant farming in rural Mississippi during the Jim Crowe era, and it is not pretty. Jordan’s prose, however, is far from prosaic, and the reader is drawn into the story by the beautiful language. Her characterizations of rural medical care, farming, race relations, returning veterans, as well as her references to the seminal Mississippi flood of 1927 (which people in that region still speak about today), are all well researched and highly descriptive.
The denouement of the story (which takes place in the aforementioned sawmill) is violent and tears both families asunder, but the arc of the story leads to no other solution than violence and unhappiness. The name Mudbound is given by Laura to the farm that Henry drags her to from her comfortable life in suburban Memphis. Laura says, “When I think of the farm, I think of mud…I dream in brown.” The novel is indeed befitting of a title like Mudbound, as it casts dark shadows on the nature of men and women leading lives that seem to promise no graceful conclusion.