If you’re a Southerner, there comes a time when you may become weary of the “things go horribly wrong on the farm”-style of Southern Gothic literature. To the authors of these tales, one might even say “Nobody could do it as well as Faulkner, so why are you trying?” Or maybe I’m just projecting.
This happened to me when The Oxford American serialized John Grisham’s A Painted House. That book may be the poorest selling book in the Grisham oeuvre, but I thought that it was pretty good. Once I grudgingly started to read it.
I was given a copy of Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound, and I have to say that I was initially reluctant to give it a shot based on its general description. The novel has won the inaugural Bellwether Prize founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize literature of social responsibility. I wasn’t sure if that was a plus or a minus – was the book going to get all preachy on me? Once I actually started reading though, I was pleasantly surprised.
Mudbound takes place in the years following World War II. A relatively urbane woman from Memphis is forced to relocate her family on little notice when her husband suddenly decides to pick up stakes and begin farming in the Mississippi Delta. Things get off to a rocky start when the house he had purchased in the nearby town is occupied by a couple who also purchased the house from the double-dealing seller. Forced to live in an old shack on the farm itself, the family is cut off from the rest of the town (and the world) when rains cause the adjacent creek to cover the only road.
The family finds that life in the Delta is fraught with inherent hardships: the unpredictable cooperation of the elements, a razor thin margin between profit and financial ruin, unreliable medical care, institutional racism, crippling poverty, and substandard education. It’s a hardscrabble life that is not for the thin skinned or those of questionable resolve. As one character notes, “there is no room for pity on a farm.”
Mudbound takes a close look at a time of change in the Delta. For African-American service men returning from the War, the cat was out of the bag. Having experienced the (relative) equality in Europe, there was no going back to the way things were in Jim Crow South. Having received a steady wage, why return to the vagaries of farming? Having proven themselves in battle, why return to a subservient second-class citizenship in the South? For many, the reason was that the south was Home, and that’s where their families could be found.
The fish out of water farmers, post World War II realities, rural life, and a bitter old man provide the friction that ensures that – well – things aren’t going to go well on the farm. The novel takes some unexpected twists and turns. Other dark clouds in the story are cast over the book from the very beginning. Jordan proves herself to be a master story teller, especially for having converted at least one very skeptical reader. This is an epic story of Southern life that is well told, and it deserves the accolades that is has received.
Shortly after finishing the book, I was presented with the opportunity to have the author anchor the second helping of the Baby Got Books Reading Series. I jumped at the chance. When the Wayne Fishell Experience and Hope for Agoldensummer (who I just heard on Album 88 – that’s some indie street cred right there) were added to the bill, I knew that we had a very special evening lined up. I hope that you’ll join us on March 24th for what has turned out to be the very last night of operation for Wordsmiths Books in their current location. FREE. Details:
Russ has more at the Wordsmiths blog…