I’m not one who willingly picks up a book that takes place in the American South. I usually read books that help me escape my reality, not remind me how awful the present is. My reason for picking up Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound is pretty shallow. Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan, two actors I’m big fans of, are starring in the adaptation and I’m the kind of nerd who needs to read the book before watching the movie (I still haven’t watched PBS’s Wolf Hall because that book is on my shelf waiting to be read). I have no idea when the movie is coming out, but I borrowed the book from a friend so it moved up on the list. I wasn’t expecting to love this book, merely read it as part of my nerdy desire to know the book before the adaptation ruins it. Well, you can probably see where this is going…I absolutely loved it. I read it in one sitting during my 7 hour shift at the library. Don’t get me wrong–this isn’t a happy, feel-good book. This is the book that will wrench your heart out and make you eat it. Which is why I loved it.
Mudbound takes place in post-WWII South. Jordan brings to life not just the blatant racism against black Americans dominant in the South, but also the hypocrisy of sending out black men to fight for a country that rejects their humanity. Jordan writes about two families: the McAllens (white farmers) and the Jacksons (the black tenants). Laura is 31 when she meets Henry McAllen, a 41 year old engineer who uproots her from her comfort in Jackson and moves her to a farm in the middle of nowhere. Henry was cheated out of a house he rented so the family of four with Henry’s awful father in tow have to live in a broken-down house on the farm. Jamie McAllen and Ronsel Jackson are WWII veterans who face different realities when they come home. Both traumatized from their experiences, they struggle finding their place outside the war. Ronsel, who was in an all-black division that actually fought (most all-black divisions were forced to do manual labor), had an affair with a woman in Germany. Here is where Jordan highlights the complexity of race. In WWII Germany, a place not very welcoming to non-white, non-Christian people, a white German woman could be seen having an affair with a black American soldier. Jordan shows a black soldier being treated better in Germany than at home. The book is not for the faint-of-heart; there is an attempted lynching, which while the character survives, he is maimed. This is a man who fought against fascism, but is not shown the civility and honor of the white veterans. As someone interested in trauma theory, I was also enthralled by Jordan’s depiction of PTSD. With just two characters who suffer from war trauma, Jordan manages to show how trauma affects people differently and how those who didn’t experience the war first-hand react to the broken men who return. While the novel is relatively short, it is complex in its themes and depictions of its characters.
Jordan presents the narrative from each main character’s perspective. I’m personally a fan of that technique; it’s probably why I enjoyed A Song of Ice and Fire and Dickens novels while many of my friends got annoyed. By weaving through the past and present of the characters, Jordan builds up the story slowly. You kind of know where the plot is headed, but the journey is just as important as the climax. Typical to the multiple point of view narrative technique, you sympathize with each character. Henry is the 1940s version of the “good” slave owner and while you still hate his ideas, Jordan makes it clear that he is the product of his times and you end up pitying him. In fact, I ended up pitying all the characters, just for different reasons. I think I loved this book so much because both the plot and the characterizations worked so well that I was lost within the text. It’s not easy reading a plot taking place in the late 1940s and realizing not much has changed in 70 years, but Jordan wrote such a beautifully-crafted book that the sad realization didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel.