by Hillary Jordan
I give Hillary Jordan high marks for her well-crafted novel Mudbound, about marital relationships and the evil of racism set in rural Mississippi immediately after the end of World War II.
I was especially impressed with Part I of her novel. The first scene, the digging of Pappy’s grave by his sons Henry and Jamie McAllan, intimating individual differences and events yet to be narrated, was exceptional.
“Every shovelful was an agony [Jamie narrates] – the old man, getting in his last licks. Still, I was glad of the pain. It shoved away thought and memory.”
“’We can’t bury our father in a nigger’s grave,’ Henry said. ‘There’s nothing he’d have hated more.’”
“He [Henry] looked up, searching for [his wife] Laura. When his eyes found her they lit with emotions so private I was embarrassed to see them: longing, hope, a tinge of worry.”
Hillary Jordan’s insightful characterization of husband and wife Henry and Laura made very believable their marital difficulties and Laura’s eventual infidelity. Throughout the novel Laura has ambivalent feelings about her husband. Ten years older than Laura, Henry lacked younger brother Jamie’s “brightness” and charm. Girls “sparkle for him,” Henry tells Laura at a dance the three attended in 1939. A spinster at 31 Laura tells us that she was well on her “way to petrification” and that a man like Jamie “could never desire a woman like me. It was marvel enough that Henry desired me. … I was so grateful to him that it dwarfed everything else. He was my rescuer from life in the margins, from the pity, scorn and crabbed kindness that are the portion of old maids.” Inexorably, “everything else” surpasses gratitude.
Laura harbors resentment, at times suppresses rage. This is especially so when and especially after Henry buys a cotton farm forty miles from Greenville, where he and Laura had been living. Owning and operating a farm has been his lifelong aspiration. “Just like that, my life was overturned. Henry didn’t ask me how I felt about leaving my home of thirty-seven years and moving with his cantankerous father in tow to a hick town in the middle of Mississippi and I didn’t tell him.”
She bears initially the hard, monotonous, unrewarding rural existence without complaint. But, finally, she explodes. She defies Henry’s husbandly authority by refusing to get rid of her piano -- her sole connection to civilized life. Henry and Pappy wanted its space in the cramped, ramshackle farm house for Pappy to sleep, the farm’s dirt-floor lean-to deemed by Pappy unacceptable. “‘… you go back in there and tell your father he can sleep in the lean-to. Either that or he can sleep in the bed with you, because I am not staying here without my piano.’” Henry agrees to put a floor in the lean-to, but he is angry. We readers anticipate consequences.
Part II brings Ronsel Jackson and Jamie McAllan prominently into the story. Each has returned from the war. Each is damaged psychologically. Ronsel is the son of Florence Jackson, Laura’s black housekeeper, and Hap Jackson, local black preacher and Henry’s tenant farmer. Ronsel is intelligent and proud. He has experienced racial equality in Europe, has had a love affair with a white German woman, and has returned to visit his parents. Circumstances will force him to stay longer than he has planned. Early on he infuriates local racists by leaving the nearby town’s general store by the front door. We sense future trouble. Jamie arrives after Laura has had a miscarriage. It has emotionally destroyed her. He had been wandering about Europe after his discharge seeking to heal himself. Laura is moved. “I would heal him, I thought. I would cook food to strengthen him, play music to soothe him, tell stories to make him smile.” We sense trouble here as well. When we learn that Ronsel and Jamie enjoy each other’s company, that their war experiences provide a commonality, we anticipate racial repercussions. Part II enthralled me.
Two things that the author did in Part III did bother me. We know that chance occurrences can affect the courses of people’s lives. A fierce storm, the rotten rung of a ladder, a suicide, somebody being absent at an inopportune time, etc.: too much of these trigger events happen in this novel. Resulting outcomes seemed a bit contrived. Secondly, authors don’t want their plot outcomes to be too predictable. Plot twists, used judiciously, can be a remedy. I felt that Hillary Jordan used too many twists. We are lead to believe one thing will happen or a certain character is responsible for a particular outcome only to discover that we are wrong; we believe then something else; we are again surprised. I felt I was being manipulated.
These criticisms aside, Part III is high caliber. Especially compelling is the message Hillary Jordan communicates about blatant American racial supremacy, injustice, ignorance, and cruelty of that era -- beliefs and practices that persisted well into the Twentieth Century and that exist less overtly today. Her message reminds us that we are a flawed species capable of horrific crimes against any human being who is different, less advantaged, or deemed a threat to our sense of importance or self-worth.