Written by Hillary Jordan
When I looked at the title of Hillary Jordan’s “Mudbound” (2009) on my book club list, my heart sank. It sounded like the last book in the world I’d like to read during the excessively wet spring we’ve had, but I grudgingly picked it up.
Yet in spite of the book’s boggy setting, Jordan delivers a satisfying first novel by bringing together a colorful cast of characters living in the Jim Crow south just as World War II ends.
The appeal of Jordan’s tale rests in her ability to reveal how the larger picture of the time (the mid-1940s) and the place (a small town in rural Mississippi) affect each and every person.
Six of her characters take turns narrating the story.
Laura had been a 31-year-old teacher who felt doomed to spinsterhood when she met that “rare and marvelous creature, a 41-year-old bachelor” and married him. Since Henry was a “college man” she was shocked to learn that he bought a farm, but as a dutiful wife, she follows him to the Mississippi Delta, worlds away from her comfortable Memphis home.
When the story begins, they are raising their two little daughters in a dilapidated home on the farm.
Hap and Florence are black tenant farmers living and working on Henry’s property with their two girls and boy.
Florence is the local mid-wife who works most days in Laura’s house. She knows that a “soft, city-bred woman like Laura” isn’t meant for life in the Delta, so she exerts power over her employer.
Their older boy, Ronsel, returns to the small town after serving in the 761st Black Panther battalion that General Patton had called into action in Europe. His experiences with the more accepting Europeans make it hard to fall back into the submissive role demanded of him in the town.
Henry’s younger brother, Jamie, also returns from the war to stay for a while with Henry’s family. The once light-hearted young man is changed dramatically after serving as a bomber pilot over Europe. Their shared war experience draws Jamie and Ronsel together.
Yes, “Mudbound” is about getting stuck. Getting stuck on a farm that’s so rough compared to the comfortable urban life you left. Getting stuck doing hard labor for someone who knows less than you. Getting stuck in a town where those in power hate you. Getting stuck with memories of what you were ordered to do in a war.
Mud turns out to be a powerful metaphor.