Mudbound (Jordan)

Hillary Jordan, 2008
Algonquin Books
340 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781565126770

A gripping and exquisitely rendered story of forbidden love, betrayal, and murder, set against the brutality of the Jim Crow South.

When Henry McAllan moves his city-bred wife, Laura, to a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta in 1946, she finds herself in a place both foreign and frightening. Laura does not share Henry's love of rural life, and she struggles to raise their two young children in an isolated shotgun shack with no indoor plumbing or electricity, all the while under the eye of her hateful, racist father-in-law. When it rains, the waters rise up and swallow the bridge to town, stranding the family in a sea of mud.

As the McAllans are being tested in every way, two celebrated soldiers of World War II return home to help work the farm. Jamie McAllan is everything his older brother Henry is not: charming, handsome, and sensitive to Laura's plight, but also haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, comes home from fighting the Nazis with the shine of a war hero, only to face far more personal—and dangerous—battles against the ingrained bigotry of his own countrymen. It is the unlikely friendship of these two brothers-in-arms, and the passions they arouse in others, that drive this powerful debut novel. Mudbound reveals how everyone becomes a player in a tragedy on the grandest scale, even as they strive for love and honor.

Jordan's indelible portrayal of two families caught up in the blind hatred of a small Southern town earned the prestigious Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded biennially to a first literary novel that addresses issues of social injustice. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Raised—Dallas, Texas, and Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA
Education—B.A., Wellseley College; M.F.A., Columbia
Awards—Bellwether Award; Alex Award (American Library
   Assoc.); Fiction of the Year (New Atlantic Independent Book-
   sellers Assoc.)
Currently—lives in New York State, soon in New York City

Hillary Jordan is the author of two novels: Mudbound, published in March 2008, and When She Woke, published in October 2011, both by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. She received a BA from Wellesley College and an MFA from Columbia University. She grew up in Dallas, TX and Muskogee, OK and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Mudbound is a story of betrayal, murder and forbidden love set in on a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta in 1946, during the height of the Jim Crow era. The story is told in alternating first-person narratives by the members of two families: the McAllans, the white family that owns the farm; and the Jacksons, a black family that works for the McAllans as share tenants. When two sons, Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson, return from fighting World War II, the unlikely friendship of these brothers-in-arms sets in motion a harrowing chain of events that test the faith and courage of both families. As they strive for love and honor in a brutal time and place, they become players in a tragedy on the grandest scale and find redemption where they least expect it.

When She Woke

"When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign." Hannah Payne’s life has been devoted to church and family. But after she’s convicted of murder, she awakens in a new body to a nightmarish new life. She finds herself lying on a table in a bare room, covered only by a paper gown, with cameras broadcasting her every move to millions at home, for whom observing new “chromes”—criminals whose skin color has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime—is a sinister form of entertainment. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder. The victim, says the state of Texas, was her unborn child, and Hannah is determined to protect the identity of the father, a public figure with whom she shared a fierce and forbidden love.

A powerful reimagining of The Scarlet Letter, When She Woke is a timely fable about a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of the not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated, but “chromed” and released back into the population to survive as best they can. In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a journey of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith and love.

Mudbound won a 2009 Alex Award from the American Library Association as well as the 2006 Bellwether Prize for fiction, founded by author Barbara Kingsolver and awarded biennially to an unpublished work of fiction that addresses issues of social justice. It was the 2008 NAIBA (New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association) Fiction Book of the Year, was long-listed for the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and named one of the Top Ten Debut Novels of the Decade by Paste Magazine. Mudbound was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, a Borders Original Voices selection, a Book Sense pick, one of twelve New Voices for 2008 chosen by Waterstone's UK, a Richard & Judy New Writers Book Of The Month, and one of Indie Next's top ten reading group suggestions for 2009.

When She Woke was the #1 Indie Next pick for October 2011 and one of Publishers Weekly's Top Ten Literary Fiction picks for the fall. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
In Hillary Jordan's first novel, the forces of change and resistance collide with terrible consequences. Set in Mississippi just after World War II, the story is told by a chorus of narrators who alternate throughout the book.... It is a novel of place as much as people.
Amy Virshup - New York Times

Once Jordan gets these characters in place, she builds a compelling family tragedy, a confluence of romantic attraction and racial hatred that eventually falls like an avalanche. Indeed, the last third of the book is downright breathless.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Jordan's tautly structured debut.... Confronts disturbing truths about America's past with a directness and a freshness of approach that recalls Alice Walker's The Color Purple.
Christina Koning - London Times

In a layered tragedy that is at once complicated and inevitable, Mudbound dramatizes the human cost of unthinking hatred... The challenge Jordan faces is to make an all-too-familiar story compelling. She meets it by making her characters flesh and blood.... That [she] makes a hopeful ending seem possible, after the violence and injustice that precede it, is a tribute to the novel's voices and the contribution each makes to the story... The characters live in the novel as individuals, black and white, which gives Mudbound its impact.
Lynna Williams - Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This book packs an emotional wallop that will engage adult and adolescent readers... The six narrators here have enough time and space to develop a complicated set of relationships. The fault lines among them converge into a crackling gunpoint confrontation, a stunning scene that ranks as my personal favorite of this year.
Rollie Welch - Cleveland Plain Dealer

Is it too early to say, after just one book, that here's a voice that will echo for years to come? With authentic, earthy prose...Jordan picks at the scabs of racial inequality that will perhaps never fully heal and brings just enough heartbreak to this inimate, universal tale, just enough suspense, to leave us contemplating how the lives and motives of these vivid characters might have been different.
Steven Benett - San Antonia Express

Jordan's beautiful debut (winner of the 2006 Bellwether Prize for literature of social responsibility) carries echoes of As I Lay Dying, complete with shifts in narrative voice, a body needing burial, flood and more. In 1946, Laura McAllan, a college-educated Memphis schoolteacher, becomes a reluctant farmer's wife when her husband, Henry, buys a farm on the Mississippi Delta, a farm she aptly nicknames Mudbound. Laura has difficulty adjusting to life without electricity, indoor plumbing, readily accessible medical care for her two children and, worst of all, life with her live-in misogynous, racist, father-in-law. Her days become easier after Florence, the wife of Hap Jackson, one of their black tenants, becomes more important to Laura as companion than as hired help. Catastrophe is inevitable when two young WWII veterans, Henry's brother, Jamie, and the Jacksons' son, Ronsel, arrive, both battling nightmares from horrors they've seen, and both unable to bow to Mississippi rules after eye-opening years in Europe. Jordan convincingly inhabits each of her narrators, though some descriptive passages can be overly florid, and the denouement is a bit maudlin. But these are minor blemishes on a superbly rendered depiction of the fury and terror wrought by racism.
Publishers Weekly

Jordan's poignant and moving debut novel, winner of the 2006 Bellwether Prize, takes on social injustice in the postwar Mississippi Delta. Here, two families, the landowning McAllans and their black sharecroppers, the Jacksons, struggle with the mores of the Jim Crow South. Six distinctive voices narrate the complex family stories that include the faltering marriage of Laura and Henry McAllan, the mean-spirited family patriarch and his white-robed followers, and returning war heroes Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson. In every respect, the powerful pull of the land dominates their lives. Henry leaves a secure job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to buy their farm, never noticing that the refined and genteel Laura dreams of escaping the pervasive mud and dreary conditions of farm life. Ronsel, encouraged by his war-hero status as a tank commander, wants to break away from the past and head North to a better future, while his parents, knowing no other life but farming, struggle to buy their own land. Jordan faultlessly portrays the values of the 1940s as she builds to a stunning conclusion. Highly recommended for all public libraries.
Donna Bettencourt - Library Journal

Family bonds are twisted and broken in Jordan's meditation on the fallen South. Debut novelist Jordan won the 2006 Bellwether Prize for this disquieting reflection on rural America, told from multiple perspectives. After steadfastly guarding her virginity for three decades, cosmopolitan Memphis schoolmarm Laura Chappell agrees to marry a rigid suitor named Henry McAllan, and in 1940 they have their first child. At the end of World War II, Henry drags his bride, their now expanded brood and his sadistic Pappy off to a vile, primitive farm in the backwaters of Mississippi that she names "Mudbound." Promised an antebellum plantation, Laura finds that Henry has been fleeced and her family is soon living in a bleak, weather-beaten farmhouse lacking running water and electricity. Resigned to an uncomfortable truce, the McAllans stubbornly and meagerly carve out a living on the unforgiving Delta. Their unsteady marriage becomes more complicated with the arrival of Henry's enigmatic brother Jamie, plagued by his father's wrath, a drinking problem and the guilt of razing Europe as a bomber pilot. Adding his voice to the narrative is Ronsel Jackson, the son of one of the farm's tenants, whose heroism as a tank soldier stands for naught against the racism of the hard-drinking, deeply bigoted community. Punctuated by an illicit affair, a gruesome hate crime and finally a quiet, just murder in the night, the book imparts misery upon the wicked—but the innocent suffer as well. "Sometimes it's necessary to do wrong," claims Jamie McAllan in the book's equivocal denouement. "Sometimes it's the only way to make things right."The perils of country living are brought to light in a confidently executed novel.
Kirkus Reviews

 Discussion Questions1. The setting of the Mississippi Delta is intrinsic to Mudbound. Discuss the ways in which the land functions as a character in the novel and how each of the other characters relates to it.

2. Mudbound is a chorus, told in six different voices. How do the changes in perspective affect your understanding of the story? Are all six voices equally sympathetic? Reliable? Pappy is the only main character who has no narrative voice. Why do you think the author chose not to let him speak?

3. Who gets to speak and who is silent or silenced is a central theme, the silencing of Ronsel being the most literal and brutal example. Discuss the ways in which this theme plays out for the other characters. For instance, how does Laura's silence about her unhappiness on the farm affect her and her marriage? What are the consequences of Jamie's inability to speak to his family about the horrors he experienced in the war? How does speaking or not speaking confer power or take it away?

4. The story is narrated by two farmers, two wives and mothers, and two soldiers. Compare and contrast the ways in which these parallel characters, black and white, view and experience the world.

5. What is the significance of the title? In what ways are each of the characters bound—by the land, by circumstance, by tradition, by the law, by their own limitations? How much of this binding is inescapable and how much is self-imposed? Which characters are most successful in freeing themselves from what binds them?

6. All the characters are products of their time and place, and instances of racism in the book run from Pappy’s outright bigotry to Laura’s more subtle prejudice. Would Laura have thought of herself as racist, and if not, why not? How do the racial views of Laura, Jamie, Henry, and Pappy affect your sympathy for them?

7. The novel deals with many thorny issues: racism, sexual politics, infidelity, war. The characters weigh in on these issues, but what about the author? Does she have a discernable perspective, and if so, how does she convey it?

8. We know very early in the book that something terrible is going to befall Ronsel. How does this sense of inevitability affect the story? Jamie makes Ronsel responsible for his own fate, saying "Maybe that's cowardly of me, making Ronsel's the trigger finger." Is it just cowardice, or is there some truth to what Jamie says? Where would you place the turning point for Ronsel? Who else is complicit in what happens to him, and why?

9. In reflecting on some of the more difficult moral choices made by the characters—Laura's decision to sleep with Jamie, Ronsel's decision to abandon Resl and return to America, Jamie's choice during the lynching scene, Florence's and Jamie's separate decisions to murder Pappy—what would you have done in those same situations? Is it even possible to know? Are there some moral positions that are absolute, or should we take into account things like time and place when making judgments?

10. How is the last chapter of Mudbound different from all the others? Why do you think the author chose to have Ronsel address you, the reader, directly? Do you believe he overcomes the formidable obstacles facing him and finds "something like happiness"? If so, why doesn't the author just say so explicitly? Would a less ambiguous ending have been more or less satisfying?
(Questions from author's website.)

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