Word of mouth is really the best way to find out about a book. Last weekend a friend recommended Mudbound with intense enthusiasm and I am so grateful that she did. Simply put, it’s a novel about racism in Mississippi just after World War II, but the way Hillary Jordan tells this story brings it closer to Greek tragedy.
Oh, there’s nothing pretentious about the writing. It’s vivid but never showy. Jordan doesn’t reach for effects. Six of the main characters narrate the story, a technique I’m slightly ambivalent about. The different voices are compelling and I don’t see how else she could have gotten into their heads. It’s especially useful for portraying the range of racist attitudes, black and white, without alienating the readers from the characters. Even the most sympathetic among them, like the educated, kind-hearted Laura, see the black characters as less than equal. To describe that from outside would be too damning, I think, whereas Laura can casually tell us that Florence, her maid, eats her meals on the porch rather than with the family. I guess the device seems a little bit contrived, but it pays off so magnificently that I think you have to overlook that issue.
What’s stunning is the relentless drive in this story. It is just very hard to stop reading once you’ve started. It begins with a pair of brothers, Henry and Jamie McAllan, burying their wicked, meddlesome father in a muddy grave. Henry is sober and earnest, Jamie magnetic and high-strung. Add Henry’s wife, Laura, striving to be loyal. Down the road live the black tenant farmers, the Jacksons, whose charismatic son Ronsel has come back from fighting in Germany with a new sense of his own capacities.
The story then moves back to Laura’s courtship with Henry in Memphis, and Jordan’s noose around her character starts to tighten. Laura is almost a spinster, and marries Henry partly out of gratitude. Henry buys a cotton farm in Mississippi, and Laura’s world is reduced to the drudgery, hardship, and occasional danger of the isolated life on a farm. The white McAllans depend on the black Jacksons and vice versa, and though the McAllans hold the upper hand economically there’s some intriguing, unsettling instability in the shift of power among them. Actually, now that I think of it, the power among these tightly meshed characters is passed almost from hand to hand, as one after another makes choices that will affect all the others. You know where the tale is going to end, because it started there: at the bottom of a muddy grave. In between, humans behave as well and as badly as they possibly can.
Then, in a masterly touch, Jordan pulls back from events and provides a coda — maybe this is where her multiple-narrator technique proves its ultimate worth, because it enables her to put the entire tragedy into some kind of perspective that provides hope and redemption without sentimentality.