I think I was somehow predestined to read Mudbound when I did: just after I finished Barbara Kingsolver‘s mightily disappointing Flight Behavior, I turned next to Hillary Jordan‘s 2008 debut novel. While searching for an image of the book cover to load here, I noticed the golden sticker – an award nod for being the “winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction.” Timing is everything, right? – because the Bellwether (which morphed into the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction in 2012) was founded and funded by none other than Kingsolver herself.
In case you’re starting to wonder, here’s the verdict: Mudbound is the far better title on the page, and stuck in the ears, as well. You’ll find no anemic, strangely accented, self-narration here; instead, a full cast voices the multiple narrators, with especially effective performances by Kate Forbes as the controlled Laura, Ezra Knight as desperately proud Ronsel, Brenda Pressley as the stalwartly tragic Florence. Mudbound proves to be one of the those rare assured debuts that send you instantly looking for more: luckily, Jordan has another title I’ve already iPod-loaded.
Mudbound opens with death: two brothers, Henry and Jamie, are digging their father Pappy’s grave. The power of a dead man to ooze such vitriolic hate over the 300-plus pages that follow is a horrific reminder of the worst in mankind. World War II is over, and the Americans who return home are both victorious and maimed, most deeply by scars invisible to the eye. In the deep South of the Mississippi Delta, the McAllan cotton farm – owned by land-loving Henry and his city-raised wife Laura – welcomes two veterans, Henry’s much younger brother Jamie and Ronsel Jackson, the oldest son of Henry’s tenant sharecropper. Ronsel’s father Hap works Henry’s land; his mother Florence helps Laura in the rustic farmhouse. Both Jamie and Ronsel are decorated war heroes, and yet Ronsel’s dark skin will damn him to abusive treatment without cause.
Jamie, Laura, Ronsel, Henry, Florence, and Hap each take narrative turns, and yet the story is driven by Pappy’s inescapable hate … with heinous consequences. The last few chapters of the book are unrelenting nightmares, once read/heard/imagined, never to be erased. And yet somehow, with Pappy finally in the ground, hope might prevail: “Might even find something like happiness. That’s the ending we want, you and me both. I’ll grant you it’s unlikely, but it is possible.”
Sometimes that possibility is all that keeps us going …