4 July 2012

Hillary Jordan: Mudbound (2008)

Mudbound is the first novel by Hillary Jordan, who grew up in Dallas, Texas and Muskogee, Oklahama. The book is almost entirely set on and around a cotton farm in the late 1940s in the Mississippi Delta not far from Greenville, and takes the form of a multiple narrative in six voices – three from the white McAllan family, and three from the black Jackson family:

Laura McAllan is a warm, tolerant city woman from Memphis, Tennessee and a 31-year-old virgin when she meets the man who will become her husband. She is shocked when several years later her family is forced to move to a primitive shack in Mississippi, on a farm prone to isolation by flooding. Things are made worse by the fact that her husband's father, a racist and a misogynist, also lives with them.

Henry McAllan is Laura's husband and is steady and reliable but a little too conventional, a little too accepting of old ways and of his father in particular. The land is in his blood.

Jamie is Henry's beloved brother. A handsome man who has women flocking to him, he first greatly impresses Laura when he dances with her at the famous Peabody in Memphis. He will later return from the war to live with the McAllan family, somewhat traumatised and with an addiction to whiskey.

Hap Jackson is a share tenant on Henry's property who is keen to get justice for his family but is aware of the dangers of stepping too far over the line in a Jim Crow society where the whites hold all the trump cards.

Florence Jackson is Hap's wife and the local midwife who also helps Laura out with household jobs. She is an intelligent woman who is also a good psychologist.

Ronsel Jackson is Hap and Florence's son and – transgressively – forms a close friendship with Jamie. He too comes with mental baggage from the war, part of it caused by a love affair with a white German woman. He finds it very difficult to adjust to a society which eagerly uses blacks as cannon fodder to protect itself but will not even acknowledge that they should have the same rights as anyone else.

Bit by bit, the six voices unravel into a powerful story of mindless racial violence, adulterous sex, and parricide.

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