Wednesday, June 1, 2016

#BookReview: MUDBOUND by Hillary Jordan

I can't imagine that taking on racism and prejudice in a story is an easy task for any author.  As an author, you have to know that each person reading your novel is going to approach it with their own opinions shaped by their reality.  I would imagine their reality would be colored by their experiences, this particular case as they relate to prejudice and racism, and their history, specifically as it relates to this book.

As a black woman, I'm very hesitant to read books along the line of Mudbound because I don't want a sugar-coated, holding hands, singing Kumbayah version of the story.  In reading Mudbound, I also realized that I can't necessarily stomach the hardcore, in your face version of a story either.  I trudged through it, but I have to say that I enjoyed Jordan's When She Woke far more than I did this story.

Set in the 1940's Mississippi Delta, Mudbound is told from the points of view of Laura, a confirmed spinster who finally marries in her thirties; Henry, her by the book, engineer turned farmer husband; Jamie, Henry's fun loving brother who comes back from the war with his light dimmed just a bit; Florence, the McAllan's housekeeper and  wife of a tenant farmer; Ronsel, the son of Florence, who has also recently returned from the war.

When we first meet Laura, she's a spinster teacher in Memphis who lives with her parents.  She's resigned herself to the fact that she'll never get married.  She seems likable enough.  Her brother brings home Henry, a friend of his who works for the Army Corps of Engineers.  He's older than Laura, though no one seems to have a problem with him being a confirmed bachelor, and the two begin to court.  When he proposes marriage, Laura agrees and is under the assumption that they'll take up residence in Memphis.

Henry has always longed to own a farm and without discussing it with Laura, buys one in the Mississippi Delta.  I was already side-eying him for moving his wife and two small daughters down there, but then his outspoken racist father comes as part of the package and I was screaming at Laura to take her babies back home to Memphis and leave those two in the delta by themselves.  But like a dutiful wife, she went with him.

Up until this point, there hadn't been any real interaction with people of color, so I wasn't aware of how the McAllans felt about them.  Their arrival in Mississippi changed all of that.  It became all too obvious that Henry, his father and Laura, to a lesser extent, had no compassion for anyone that didn't look like them.
“Damn niggers,” Orris said. “Moving up north, leaving folks with no way to make a crop. Ought to be a law against it.”

“In my day we didn’t let em leave,” Pappy said. “And the ones that tried sneaking off in the middle of the night ended up sorry they had.”

Orris nodded approvingly. “My brother has a farm down to Yazoo City. Do you know, last October he had cotton rotting in the fields because he couldn’t find enough niggers to pick it?
Did I really read that right? Did you read that right? Yes! These men were actually mad that black people moved up north in search of a better life instead of staying in Mississippi to pick their crop and make them money while living as sharecroppers that could never hope to pay off their debt.  So this is the attitude of his countrymen that Ronsel faces as he returns home from the war.  It explains his statement:
We didn’t stay in their country long, but I’ll always be grateful to those English folks for how they welcomed us. First time in my life I ever felt like a man first and a black man second.
And lest we believe that the comments of whites regarding blacks were reserved for black men:
Most of them use their women harder than their mules. I’ve seen colored women out in the fields so big with child they could barely bend over to hoe the cotton. Of course, a colored woman is sturdier than a white woman to begin with.
So I turn to the women of the story and expect, for some reason, that women will be more sympathetic.  And while Florence sees Laura McAllan as a woman and mother, which is apparent when they first meet:
First time I laid eyes on Laura McAllan she was out of her head with mama worry. When that mama worry takes ahold of a woman you can’t expect no sense from her. She’ll do or say anything at all and you just better hope you ain’t in her way.
Laura is unable to see Florence as anything other than a negro when she comes to her after Ronsel goes missing:
There was real animosity in Florence’s eyes, and it woke an answering flare in me. How dared she threaten me, and under my own roof? I remembered Pappy telling the girls one time that Lilly May wasn’t their friend and never would be; that if it came down to a war between the niggers and the whites, she’d be on the side of the niggers and wouldn’t hesitate to kill them both. It had angered me at the time, but now I wondered if there wasn’t a brutal kernel of truth in what he’d said.
I would have loved to say that by the time I was done with this book, I'd found any redeeming qualities in the McAllans, but I didn't.  Above all they looked out for themselves and other whites before ever showing regard or compassion for a woman who brought their children back from the brink of death or nursed Laura through a miscarriage.  I don't know.  Maybe the author didn't mean for them to have any redeeming qualities.  I'd be interested in knowing what others that have read this took from it.

Published: March 2009

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