Friday, February 1, 2013

The Book I'm Carrying Around: Mudbound

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know those books you read while walking around the house?  You're making coffee with one hand, holding the book with the other?  Glad there was a snow day and the kids are going to school late and now you've got 2 extra hours to find out what these folks on Mudbound are up to?  Yeah, this is that kind of book.

The book begins and ends at the same place - two brothers digging their father's grave.  The middle is the story of how he got there.

The basics: Henry and Laura McAllan move their family from their comfortable home with lights and a flushing toilet in Memphis to a cotton farm and worn-down farmhouse in Mississippi.  Their new land comes with sharecroppers and tenant farmers, including the Jacksons and the Atwoods.  At the end of WWII, the McAllan's brother (White) and the Jackson's eldest son (Black) come home from serving in the Army.  Their time in Europe has matured and changed their views and themselves.  And neither is really prepared to return to their Southern home.

At the end of the story - I won't tell what happened in the middle, of course - your mind flips back, as Laura's does to wonder - what was the point that set these events into motion, reminiscent of a question in "The Shack".  As in our own lives, you don't know how all the pieces fall together, which ones knock the next one over like a set of dominoes.

The story is about families, Black and White.  But the issues in the book aren't all that way.  Yes, there's racism which, at least for me, is a definite "wrong."  And there's taking care of your family, a "good".  But then there's - do you side with your family, even when they're wrong?  Can you be a good person and exact revenge?  Is it so easy, just not to mention a betrayal and hope it doesn't come up?  But, as Laura says, its better if you begin and end it all with love.

I got caught up in the story and forgot, while I was reading the book, that the father dies. I was shocked when he did, then recalled they were digging his grave at the beginning.  When you have finished the book, I urge you to go back and read the first couple of chapters again and see if you don't say,"ooohhhh, I get it!"

A few other things to consider....

- Jordan, a White woman, uses the "n-word" throughout the book, in dialogue by the White characters.  Recently, there's been controversy about Q. Tarentino using it in his movie, "Django," set in the 1860s.  Is it appropriate to use the "n-word" when historically accurate?  Should authors/screenwriters temper the vocabulary for modern sensitivities?

- Often suggested as a restitution for slavery is "40 acres and a mule."  I never gave much thought about the mule, but at one point in this story, the value of the mule is highlighted, illustrating the vast difference in potential income that the animal represents, and by consequence, the livelihood, lifestyle and hopes of the farming family.

- On the cover, there is an image - I believe its a bird reflected in the water.  Interesting enough, I'm still figuring out the symbolism.  But one day, I happened to glance at it and it appeared to be a silhouette of a man running.  Hmmm.

I was drawn in by the story, but I was pulled by the subtleties of the characters' emotions.  Jordan does a nice job of mixing in historical data (which I will presume to be true) of the 1940s into a personal story - I always like to learn a little something when I read.

Have you read it?  What did you think?


Laura said...

I saw this post a few weeks back and after reading the first paragraph, I stopped reading the post and went to Overdrive to put the book on hold. I finished it this afternoon, and came back to the post. Thanks for the advice on going back to the beginning, because like you I had forgotten how the story started and reading it over was much different than reading it the first time. It was like getting an extra nugget at the end of a story I didn’t want to put down. You got more insight into some of the characters that was impossible to understand the first time around.
This was a really great read, but at the same it was an awful and ugly story that reminded me how horrific humanity can be. I wanted one of the characters (other than Ronsel) to redeem themselves and I guess in some ways Jamie did, but not in all the ways I wanted him to. He was still very flawed and poisoned by his upbringing. But I guess that’s what I loved about the book, the complexity of all of the characters. That and how Jordan mixes up black and white, literally and figuratively. Each character, except for the father, had many redeeming qualities, but then as they told their real feelings you realized the varying degrees of sexism and racism that ran deep in their thinking.
I’ve been thinking about your ponderings at the end, especially the first one on the use of the “n-word.” I haven’t followed the Django controversy, but in general I don’t agree with censoring language when it is historically accurate. Our history is ugly; trying to pretty it up by not using offensive language doesn’t change it. Because we are sensitive to its use, using the “n-word” in a historically accurate way only shocks us more, we know how ugly it is and what is behind it.
Thanks for the recommendation. I just went to Overdrive to put Jordan’s When She Awoke on my hold list.

Mommyx4 said...

I'm glad my review lead you to a book you enjoyed! Reading those first few chapters really does the trick, right?
It was in some parts awful and ugly, but in some way I thought it offered a small piece of hope for humanity. Though maybe Jamie could've done more - he did do what he had the strength (mentally, physically, socially) to do. He did still have his human restraints of how for he would go.
And in some way - that's the question for us all from this. We all have our values - shaped by family and our own experiences, apart from that family. What do we do and how do we handle it when our personal values come in conflict with what people expect of us?

*I have When She Awoke on my list, too!