Writing with the family stories of her own grandmother's struggle to raise two girls on a mud-slogged Southern farm reverberating in her memories, debut novelist Hillary Jordan has crafted an unforgettable tale of family loyalties, the spiraling after-effects of war and the unfathomable human behavior generated by racism.
Mudbound is told in six first-person voices, starting with Laura, a city-raised teacher who is beginning to consider herself a spinster when, in 1939, she meets Henry, that "rare and marvelous creature, a forty-one-year-old bachelor." They marry, and Laura loves their quiet domestic life in Memphis. But Henry has yearned since childhood to farm his own land, and when the opportunity presents itself, he buys a cotton farm in rural Mississippi, dragging Laura and their daughters there in the middle of rainy season. Resenting being dropped, Dorothy-like, in a foreign land - "a dirt yard with a pump in the middle of it . . . a pig wallow, a chicken coop and an outhouse" - Laura names their new home Mudbound. And it is not only lack of running water that Laura has to deal with, it is Pappy, her cantankerous father-in-law who comes to live with them - a "sour, bossy" bigoted misogynist.
At this point it is 1946, and two returning war veterans enter the story: Jamie, Henry's dashing but emotionally scarred younger brother, and Ronsel, the son of two of Henry's black tenant farmers. Jordan perceptively sets the stage for the novel's seemingly predetermined denouement by giving each of these characters a voice.
Ronsel seethes with resentment that his black comrades who gave their lives in the war are just "dead niggers" in white Mississippi's eyes. Jamie is a vulnerable soul who befriends Ronsel, opening himself to the town's prejudice-fueled rage.
Jordan's debut novel has been given the Bellwether Prize - an award founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize literature of social change. Mudbound fits that description to a tee - and leaves the reader anticipating the author's next endeavor.
Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.