Book Review: Mudbound

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Posted from my Facebook, January 19, 2011.

Pasadena’s OCOS choice for 2011 is Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound, a novel about two families– one black and one white– from the rural South during and after World War II. It is told in six perspectives: a farm owner, his wife from the city, a drunken veteran, a sharecropper, the sharecropper’s wife, and a black soldier. While this story is a tragedy of how these two families interact with each other on the Mississippi Delta, it gave me a fulfilling ending that brings hope that things will all turn out okay.

The first thing to note is the setting of where these six characters live and interact: the delta. While the land there is rich in nutrients and ideal for cotton, it is also a dangerous place to be during raining seasons. Floods block the roads, the earth turns to mud, and in this time period, the white man is king. Each character has his or her own opinion about the delta and what it means to be part of the culture there. For Henry, it is a dream come true to own and live off of a farm. For Laura, it is a hellhole of uncivilized people. For Jamie, it is a place sucking his own life dry. For Hap, it is a land worth working in order to someday own a share of it. For Florence, it is a home where her family and her ancestors have lived and died. And for Ronsel, it is a nightmare away from the life he had when he was in Europe. The Mississippi Delta is a place of bounty, but it is also a place of terror not only by the environment but by the people who own the land.

Mudbound also shows that the perspectives of people who live in a single area can all have different opinions about what it means to live there. One example that comes to mind right now is actually from the Jewish doctor whom at one point fixes Hap’s leg. In their conversation, the doctor says he is from Austria, where Hap tells him that his son Ronsel is fighting in Austria killing people there. The doctor gives a smile, saying he was glad to hear it. Hap doesn’t quite understand why the doctor was glad to hear that the Austrians were being killed by his own son, not realizing that– at least in a historical perspective– Jews were persecuted in Austria by the Nazi regime. Just because people live in a particular place doesn’t mean they think the same way as everyone from that place. Similarly, just because someone is of a similar race as others, doesn’t mean that person thinks as others would of that race. This theme becomes apparent when Ronsel is held by the KKK for “defiling a white lady” (from Germany) and Jamie tries to stop them by butting in.

While the story is told in six perspectives, there is also a theme of silencing, where things are left unspoken. Silencing is an effect which either forces a person from not being able to communicate or express feeling or the person chooses not to speak on a subject out of fear or a sense of protecting others around him or her. Laura, for example, is often silenced out of choice when it comes to her family as she dutifully obeys her husband to keep him happy. Meanwhile, Hap is often silent from trying to fight because he feels that fighting a white man is inevitably hopeless for him. Interestingly enough, the most silent character who is not one of the six perspectives is Pappy, Henry’s and Jamie’s father, who does not express or defend himself in the novel and simply complains or insults the other characters in the story. In an author’s perspective, this was a clear choice because it is assumed this man had nothing good to say anyway and he is the one character readers are supposed to hate. The story begins with a flash forward of Pappy’s burial, so we know the punchline is that he dies anyway. When it came time for him to finally die in the story, I was actually happy that he did.

One of the more controversial issues about this book is the contextual use of the N-word used to degrade and insult African Americans (I’m sure we all know what that word is). While we are now out of the time period of Mark Twain, the use of this word has been taboo for decades; and its use in this novel is no different. As usual, the N-word is used by the white supremacists as well as by the black family all to mean one thing: a black person in the most disgusting of terms. For readers who are offended by this term, I do have to say that this is in a historical perspective, and anyone who says it in the novel is meant to be hated anyway for saying it. Whether or not Hillary Jordan should be allowed to print it in her novel is a completely different argument.

The last thing I really want to discuss at this point is the very title of the novel: Mudbound. While this refers directly to the nickname the farm was given by the characters in the novel, this name also has a few other meanings to the story. The inferred double meaning in the story is how things are bound by mud, as in to come together or stick together. Mud is known at least in an older time period to be an adhesive for buildings (I’m thinking adobe) but comes at the cost of becoming weaker when it rains. Similarly, this is the relationship that the characters have with the land and each other. They are bound by mud where they come together in love only temporarily, and a metaphorical storm forces them to fall apart and the relationship becomes unstable. The story’s example of this is Laura’s definition of “cleaving:” a word used in the Bible as a means to attach oneself to God, but is used in human terms as a way to sever something apart. Things that are mudbound are also cleaving in both senses of the word: to attach and to separate.

For me though, mudbound could also mean a longing for or a return to mud, as in the phrase “homeward bound.” To me it seems that all the characters are proverbially heading toward the same direction: back to the earth, or in this case, the mud. Whether it is Henry’s longing for a piece of land, Jamie’s return from the war as an airplane pilot coming back to the farm, or even Ronsel’s unfortunate homecoming to a place where he is hated, they all seem to return to a place where the land itself is treacherous and the foundation is unstable, a place we can all call “home.” My best argument for this meaning is the beginning and the end of this story: Pappy’s death. Pappy is buried on the farm, where Henry and Jamie find a skull of a mystery person inside the hole where the coffin was to be laid. Henry insists that this is not a grave fit for Pappy as it was a [N-word]’s grave, but they bury him there anyway. Hap comes to give him a final blessing by sharing with the surviving family a word from the Book of Job, something that does not necessarily comfort the dead. Pappy may have been a racist white bastard throughout the book, but in the end, he shared the same fate as that of an ancestral slave in the rural South. As in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it matters not whether one is noble or a peasant in the eyes of Death, for we are all heading in that same direction (Alas, poor Yoric). Just as Pappy was buried in the same place with a slave, we are all returning to the earth in death, for we are all mudbound.

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