‘Mudbound’ tells powerful story about race relations

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 28, 2008

“Mudbound,” by Hillary Jordan. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 328 pp. $22.95.By Elizabeth Cook
Salisbury Post
From an opening scene with two brothers frantically digging their father’s muddy grave, “Mudbound” grabs the reader like so much Mississippi muck and holds tight until its story is told.
Hillary Jordan’s first novel impressed the literary world even before Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill released it earlier this month. “Mudbound” received the prestigious Bellwether Prize, the largest U.S. award for an unpublished manuscript and the only one specifically promoting literature of social change.
“Mudbound” spotlights social change by probing the consequences of denying it. Set in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s, the novel fleshes out the dynamics of the region and time ó from landowner to tenant farmer; from defeated old, white bigot to victorious young, black soldier ó and sets into motion a tragedy that pushes characters to extremes beyond their worst imaginings.
Change comes, but at a price. As Henry and Jamie McAllan work through the blisters and muck to dig that hole, they are burying more than their father. They are burying their part in a shameful chapter of American history.
Though the narrative shifts among characters, “Mudbound” revolves around Laura, who has resigned herself to spinsterhood when Henry McAllan comes to call. Laura quickly progresses from 31-year-old virgin to wife and mother. When Henry hears the call of the land, she envisions a nice city house from which he will travel each day to the family farm.
The city house, however, is sold out from under the McAllans before they even get to it, and the family sets out for an abandoned house on the farm.
It’s not much, Henry says, “but I know you’ll make it nice.”
Laura plays the role of obedient wife through her husband’s transformation from salaried engineer to struggling farmer, through her move from Memphis to a small Mississippi town. But pretense fades when she faces the screenless windows and crude privvy of the farmhouse that’s to be her home. Every heavy rain makes the river rise over the road, cutting her off from the rest of the world. Henceforth, Laura politely but pointedly speaks her mind, with only a veneer of cheerfulness to keep peace in the household.
Henry announces that the farm is to be called Fair Fields.
“Fair Fields?” I said. “Mudbound is more like it.”
“Mudbound! Mudbound!” the girls cried.
They couldn’t stop laughing and saying the name. Mudbound stuck; I made sure of it. It was a petty form of revenge, but the only kind available to me at the time.
The worst part of life on the farm is the presence of Henry’s father, whom fate leaves with nowhere else to go. Pappy is sour, bossy and vain, and he spends his days avoiding work, criticizing Laura and spewing hatefulness. She mimics him:
“You better stir them greens, gal. You better sweep that floor now. Better teach them brats some manners. Wash them clothes. Feed them chickens. Fetch me my cane.” His voice, clotted from smoking. His sly eyes with their hard black centers, on you.
Having lost everything else, Pappy has one mission in life: keeping Negroes in their place.
Into this explosive atmosphere walks Ronsel Jackson, son of tenant farmers on the McAllan land. He’s back from fighting in World War II and proving to the armed services, at least, that black men are not inherently evil, lazy or dumb.
He has fought under Patton and ó after getting over the shock of being treated as an equal by white Europeans ó fathered a child in Germany.
But when Ronsel stops by the local store before returning home to surprise his parents, a group of white men block his exit. Pappy lets Ronsel know nothing has changed in the Delta.
“I don’t know what they let you do over there, but you’re in Mississippi now. Niggers don’t use the front door.”Ronsel’s sarcasm-laced compliance and his new friendship with Jamie McAllan ó Henry’s brother, also just returned from war ó push tensions higher and higher. Finally, with the innocent dropping of a photograph, the story comes to horrific climax.
Change comes by degrees. While Pappy and his friends are painted as the worst kind of racists, the generation just behind them is only slightly better, and Jordan is masterful with these subtleties. Henry might not block a black man’s use of a front door, but he does visit Ronsel and tell him he must apologize for his retort. Laura goes out of her way to help the Jackson family find a doctor who is not racist, but even she has limits, as she carefully delineates after describing how beautifully the Jacksons’ daughter sings:
Anyone who believes that Negroes are not God’s children never heard Lilly May Jackson sing to Him.
This is not to say that I thought of Florence and her family as equal to me and mine. I called her Florence and she called me Miz McAllan. She and Lilly May didn’t use our outhouse, but did their business in the bushes out back. And when we sat down to the noon meal, the two of them ate outside on the porch.
Life is not fair ó in the Mississippi Delta or anywhere else. But even people who are oppressed can enjoy humor and closeness within their families. That shows up the most in the relationships between husbands and wives.
The balance of power in the McAllans’ family tilts considerably in Henry’s favor, despite Laura’s growing forthrightness with him and her utter boldness with Jamie.
But Hap and Florence Jackson’s marriage looks like an even match. A tenant farmer, Hap preaches in church on Sunday and is at home every other day of the week. Florence, meanwhile, knows how to stand her ground.
One day Florence’s temper flares when Hap warns that the new landowner may run them off. As Florence narrates the story, she tells him she is not going anywhere.
“You’ll move if I say so,” Hap said. “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.”
“Only so long as he is alive,” I said. “For if the husband be dead the wife is loosed from his law. Says so in Romans.”
Later, the narrative switches to Hap’s point of view, and his wife’s insistence that he follow doctor’s orders agitates him:
“The contentions of a wife are a continual dropping,” I said. “Proverbs. 19:13.”
“And a prudent wife is straight from the Lord,” she shot back. “Proverbs 19:14.”
Woman knows her Scripture, I’ll give her that. Got no book-learning but there ain’t nothing wrong with her memory.
Jordan scatters such lighter moments throughout the book, like crumbs of comic relief on an otherwise sobering trail.
“Mudbound” tells a powerful story that will ring true with most Southerners and probably many others. We’d like to believe Pappy’s overt brand of racism is dead and gone. Indeed, for most of us it’s just a memory from conversations heard long ago among generations now deceased. But racial distrust seems to be a constant, differing only by degrees.
The worst kind comes in the form of silence, when people who could speak up and make a difference let slights and slurs go unchallenged. Their lack of protest condones attitudes that should have been buried long ago. They are as guilty of perpetuating racism as the guilt-ridden McAllan brothers, frantically digging that hole for Pappy. Contact Elizabeth Cook at 704-797-4244 or editor@salisburypost.com.