I have wanted to read Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound for a very long time, but my interest was renewed when watching a trailer for the Netflix adaptation of the novel. Mudbound won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, and has been praised highly by a favourite contemporary author of mine, Barbara Kingsolver; she says, rather grandly: ‘This is storytelling at the height of its powers.’
Mudbound is set in the Mississippi Delta in 1946. Henry McAllan has moved his whole family, including his much younger wife Laura and two small daughters, to a ramshackle farm which is at the mercy of regular flooding. Before making this rather momentous decision, he does not consult his wife at all; he merely springs the date and location of their moving upon her. ‘City-bred’ Laura does not settle in well, finding her new home lacking in many of the comforts which she has been used to for her entire life. She finds the Mississippi countryside ‘both foreign and frightening’, and begins a perpetual struggle to raise her two daughters well in their isolated shack.
Added to these problems is the existence of Henry’s father, who moves with them; he is hateful and racist, and shows that he is so at any given opportunity. He is the villain of the piece from the outset; his ‘long yellow teeth’ and ‘bony yellow fingers with their thick curled nails’ make him seem animalistic, other.
Also living with them is Henry’s younger brother, Jamie, who is just back from fighting in Europe. He is shellshocked, changed by everything he has seen, including liberating the concentration camp at Dachau. Another individual returning to the homestead is a young black man named Ronsel Jackson, whose family work as sharecroppers on the land. Despite being seen as a hero for his part in the war, when he returns home, Ronsel ‘faces far more dangerous battles against the ingrained bigotry of his own countrymen.’
I found Mudbound immediately compelling. It opens with a clandestine burial, following the murder of the father-in-law. At this moment in time, Jamie narrates: ‘Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep. Any shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood: Howdy boys! Remember me? The thought of it kept us digging even after the blisters on our palms had burst, reformed and burst again. Every shovelful was an agony – the old man, getting in his last licks.’ When the hole is being dug, the skeleton of a former slave is found within it, a shocking signpost which sets the scene for this captivating yet brutal novel.
The narrative then moves back in time, and we learn, slowly, what happened to bring the family to this point. It is obvious, very early on, that each character is very much at the mercy of their surroundings. ‘When it rained, as often as it did,’ Jordan writes, ‘the yard turned into a thick gumbo, with the house floating in it like a soggy cracker. When the rains came hard, the river rose and swallowed the bridge that was the only way across. The world was on the other side of that bridge, the world of light bulbs and paved roads and shirts that stayed white. When the river rose, the world was lost to us and us to it.’
Mudbound is, fittingly, the name which Laura gives to their decrepit home. She reflects: ‘Like most city people, I’d had a ridiculous goldenlit idea of the country. I’d pictured rain falling softly upon verdant fields, barefoot boys fishing with thistles dangling from their mouths, women quilting in cozy little log cabins while their men smoked corncob pipes on the porch. You have to get closer to the picture to see the wretched shacks scattered throughout those fields, where families clad in ragged flour-sack clothes sleep ten to a room on dirt floors; the hookworm rashes on the boys’ feet and the hideous red pellagra scales on their hands and arms; the bruises on the faces of the women, and the rage and hopelessness in the eyes of the men.’
I enjoyed the use of the multiple well-drawn perspectives here, and admired that Jordan made each of them distinctive. There is a lot of variance between the different voices. I particularly enjoyed reading Laura and Ronsel’s chapters, although I found the latter’s direct and shocking. Of his time in battle, for instance, Ronsel recalls: ‘I got to where I didn’t know what time it was or what day of the week. There was just the fighting, on and on, the crack of rifles and the ack ack ack of machine guns, bazookas firing, shells and mines exploding, men screaming and groaning and dying. And every day knowing you could be next, it could be your blood spattered all over your buddies.’
Mudbound is a haunting novel, and a great piece of historical fiction, which comes together incredibly well. The novel is well situated within its hostile environment, and the characters remained vivid to me weeks after closing the final page. I very much look forward to reading more of Jordan’s work, and soon.