Sunday, November 9, 2008

Mudbound

The little gold medallion on the front of the hardbound copy of the novel said "Winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction" so the first thing I did was google to find out what that was. I discovered that the prize was created by Barbara Kingsolver to support "literature of social change."

Fiction has a unique capacity to bring difficult issues to a broad readership on a personal level, creating empathy in a reader’s heart for the theoretical stranger. Its capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility is enormous. Throughout history, every movement toward a more peaceful and humane world has begun with those who imagined the possibilities. The Bellwether Prize seeks to support the imagination of humane possibilities
I've never read anything by Barbara Kingsolver so her imprimatur didn't mean a lot to me, but the prize sounded like a good idea. However, just because something is "literature of social change" doesn't mean that I'll enjoy it. Cod liver oil may be good for you but it doesn't taste good going down. And a title like Mudbound didn't sound encouraging. But it turned out to be a pleasant surprise - like Mississippi Mud Pie.

The novel follows two Mississippi families through World War II and the years immediately after. Specifically, it follows three members of each family. One family (Henry, his wife Laura and his brother Jamie) are white and the other family (Hap, his wife Florence and their son Ronsel) are black. Their lives intersect because Hap is a sharecropper on Henry's land.

Rather than have one point of view, Jordan gives us the point of view of all six, each one taking a chapter at a time. Six unreliable narrators, I thought when I started. I worried that I would lose interest. First person narratives are not my favorite format and six different narratives seemed confusing. I wondered if I would be tempted at the end of a chapter to just stop rather than switch points of view.

But it worked and rather than slowing things down it kept the story moving because I was never with one character long enough to tire of their point of view. In fact, I raced through this novel in a couple of days.

I was particularly impressed that Jordan (who is white) decided to write in the voice of three different black persons from the 40's. There is always the risk, I think, of stereotyping or alternatively making the character "too white" and not really nailing the concerns the character should have. But she succeeded, at least for me.

The plot is a modified "whodunnit?" because the novel opens with Jamie's point of view as he digs the grave for his and Henry's "pappy" who has died under mysterious circumstances. But the mystery isn't really the point of the novel, which explores many social themes.

Laura ends up on the farm only because her husband Henry decided for the whole family that they were leaving Memphis and becoming farmers; she had no say in the matter. Florence keeps house for Laura while Hap works in the fields but Florence is also a skilled midwife who is relied on in the community. Both Jamie and Ronsel fight in the war and come back with their own issues - including a different racial sensibility that does not fit in with the rest of the racist Mississippi Delta area. Hap and Henry love the land but Hap has little chance of ever owning his own farm while Henry's only chance of turning a profit is by exploiting the labor of blacks and poor whites.

The white characters are unabashadly racist and I liked that Jordan didn't shy away from showing that. But they are not all racist to the same degree, which is also realistic. She also didn't try to provide a happy ending where one wouldn't have occurred - although I think she was very creative in making the ending not as unhappy as it might have been. She could have done what many writers of historical fiction do - put modern sensibilities into the characters. That would have made the ending unrealistic. Without giving away a plot twist too much, she used the now-almost-forgotten hatred and fear of the German enemy that existed at the time to shape the direction the story was going. But I still think she shied away from showing the real results of racial violence in the south.

That is a minor complaint, however. All in all I enjoyed reading this novel. This was Jordan's first novel and I look forward to reading more from her.