Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan. Published 2009 by Algonquin. Literary Fiction.
I've been dreading writing my review of Mudbound, Hillary Jordan's debut novel, about a family who moves to a farm in rural Mississippi in the 1940s, ever since I finished it. I wanted to like it- I really did. Mudbound has been selling well and is getting a lot of good buzz, and I was excited to receive it unexpectedly from the publisher. The author and I are alumnae of the same college (Wellesley)- and it's always nice to see a Wellesley woman doing well for herself. But alas, sisterhood only gets you so far, and like it I did not.
First of all, let me say that it's not without its good points. Jordan is a skilled writer and has crafted a strong, character-driven narrative about a family surviving in difficult circumstances, with lots of tension just under the surface. Her characters are solid and well-defined, each with a distinctive voice and point of view. Laura McAllan is an urban, educated woman and a spinster who is charmed into marriage with Henry, who seems to want the same things she does. But as it turns out, Henry has hoodwinked her, believing (more or less correctly) that she is desperate enough to marry the first good-smelling man to ask her, and sweeps her away to his muddy homestead to be a farm wife. Here Laura endures all manner of deprivations- no running water, no electricity, dirt, pestilence, and various unseemly rural neighbors, the unseemliest being her own father-in-law Pappy, a cartoonishly evil racist with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. She also gets to know Jamie, Henry's formerly charming cad of a brother, now a washed up alcoholic veteran of World War 2. Laura has dealings with the Jackson family, poor blacks who live on the land, including salt of the earth wise-woman Florence and her son Ronsel, another WW2 veteran.
The drama is slow to build but centers around the racist whites and Ronsel; the denouement, almost seven-eighths of the way through, is harrowing and violent. The novel opens with the Pappy's death but takes all that time to get back around to filling in the details. In the mean time, we are treated to day to day life on the farm, Jamie and Ronsel's war experiences and post-war friendship and many other plots and turns of character. The narrative alternates between several characters- too many, in my opinion, and this cacophony of voices made it hard for me to connect with any one character. Having said that, I enjoyed Jordan's passages about farm life, about its economics and about its privations. I can tell that Jordan did a lot of research on these topics.
But on balance, I didn't enjoy Mudbound. Why? Several reasons. First, the characters. When I was in high school English class, a teacher once explained that the way to tell what a book is about, or who the main character is, is to see who changes over the course of the story. The thing about Mudbound is, nobody changes. Nobody learns anything, nobody grows- it's like there's no point at all to what the characters go through. As Lisa Simpson once said, it's just a bunch of stuff that happens. In the end everyone moves on in their own way, clinging to their same old beliefs, and nothing is different.
So what's the book about? Racism, maybe. But if so, Mudbound is a book about racism that condemns it (itself an easy, audience-pandering point to score- who's going to write the pro-racism book, after all?) while at the same time allowing the reader to indulge it, between Jordan's absolutely excessive overuse of the N-word (it appears on nearly every other page) and that every single character is a racist to one degree or another. Even Laura, the most obviously likeable character, is condescending at best in her attitudes. I also think that Jordan's portrayal of Ronsel as a martyred saint is condescending in and of itself. And don't tell me, well, Jordan's just reflecting the attitudes of the time and place. That excuse is just not good enough.
Reading Mudbound, I just spent lots of time being disturbed and upset and uncomfortable for lots of reasons, with very little payoff. I know I'm pretty much the only person who didn't like Mudbound, but that's okay with me.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.