by Nichole Rued
I grew up in rural Wisconsin surrounded by farms. My grandfather was a butcher. My classes went to farms on field trips. I helped raise chickens. When I hear the word “farm,” a very specific image comes to mind: Barns. Red wheelbarrows (shout out to William Carlos Williams!). Butchering chickens.
Mostly, I think of red. But I also think of dairy cows, corn mazes, the pastoral. In the novel, Mudbound, Hillary Jordan sets a multiple-perspective story rife with trauma, secrets, and racial tension on a farm in Mississippi. The farm is—to put it lightly—much different than any stereotypical image of a farm. Jordan picks up characters from various settings—the city, overseas following World War II, neighboring farms—and steeps them in a dark, brutal, mucky place. Some characters have always lived in Mississippi, like Florence and Hap, the black sharecroppers on a nearby farm. Others live there for the first time, like Laura, whose husband (Henry) purchased the farm.
While including some scenes outside of the farm and its neighboring areas, the core of this novel lies in this remote, derelict, and even cursed, place. There’s nothing pastoral about it—if you’re expecting corn mazes in a novel about a farm, you won’t get them. Even a seemingly charming activity like snapping beans is followed by “and the necks of chickens.” Not to mention, there’s mud everywhere, and lots of it: mudpies, mud on tires, mud puddles, piles of excrement. To say these characters are stuck in the mud is an understatement. Like Laura in Mudbound describes it, these characters even “dream in brown.”
Aside from the mud and the farm, perhaps the most noticeable feature of Mudbound is Jordan’s multiple-perspective approach. Jordan gives us several vantage points of the story—six, to be exact, divided into several chapters throughout—all in first-person point of view. These perspectives range from a housewife and her husband to a black tank commander, a sharecropper, and a midwife.
All the while, the chapters shift in time—while the plot is somewhat chronological, it often flashes back or takes a kind of imaginatory feel—so readers, like the characters, at times become disoriented or have to piece together parts of the larger “truth.”
Much of the experience of this novel comes in putting together these pieces—we only have access to some of the truth. Since every character seems to have a secret (or several), part of the brilliance of this novel is that Jordan forces her readers into a similar position as her characters; we can only know so much. But the heart of the conflict is that we do know more than any one character, so we’re always at the edge of our seats, wishing the characters could tell their secrets or, most often, hoping to God they can keep them.
Out of the perspectives, Laura is devoted the most attention; indeed, her perspective takes up twelve of the book’s chapters, while most of the characters are limited to four. Laura, then, feels much like the protagonist–she is all but forced to move to a farm when her husband, Henry, decides that he wants to pursue his “forever” dream (that he never managed to tell her about) and move to Mississippi. Since Laura grew up in the city, she is less than pleased, and right away, readers are likely to identify with her because we can feel how trapped she is–in the decision, in the marriage, and later, on the farm.
To make it worse, Henry tells Laura (or rather mandates that) her vile, racist, father-in-law (Pappy) will be joining them. Not only is Laura imprisoned on a farm, she is thus so with her husband’s father (always a recipe for disaster) who treats her like a maid, throws around the n-word like the word “the,” and has “yellow teeth [and] bony, yellow fingers with…thick, curved nails like pieces of ancient horn.”
Pappy is just the first of many thorns (probably better described as “swords”) in Laura’s side, and the novel continuously circles around Laura’s unhappiness in her marriage, on the farm, with Pappy, and with the adjustment to country living. Laura’s perspective, though, is punctuated with others: Jamie, a fighter pilot who suffers from PTSD (and her brother-in-law), Hap and Florence (neighboring sharecroppers and Laura’s midwife), and Ronsel—Hap and Florence’s son and a black tank commander.
In using these perspectives, Jordan adds a new dynamic to her novel–she is able to bring in several themes, like alcoholism, the after-effects of war, social class, racial tension, cruelty, violence, racism, and more. Jordan takes pretty much every theme in Southern Gothic Fiction and brilliantly rolls it into one novel–it’s no wonder it got “bigger and bigger” than the short story it started as.
This brings me to what’s arguably the prevailing theme in the novel: racism. In the novel, we see class differences between blacks and whites, limitations to access to everything from mules to doctors, the roles blacks are “supposed to” inhabit, and ultimately, violence against blacks. Jordan uses the multiple perspectives to show the harsh realities of being black in America in the 1940s. In using diverse perspectives, Jordan is able to draw attention to a spectrum of racial prejudice—she highlights everything from internal, unspoken biases to spoken derogatory comments and physical violence. I’d wager that there isn’t one chapter in this book that doesn’t somehow deal with these issues.
I’d be cheapening my review if I didn’t mention the dialect in the novel before ending. One of the most notable qualities of this novel is Jordan’s attempt to give each character a realistic “voice.” Jordan tries to write each character with an authentic accent, even German characters when Ronsel is abroad. Indeed, all of her characters have some type of accent; I mention this because white writers often fail to give their white characters accents even if they live in the same region as their black characters, which can draw attention to the educational differences between blacks and whites. Thus, Jordan’s commitment to capturing dialect in all of her characters is commendable. I’ll admit that I’d like to hear more about Jordan’s decision to write from black perspectives, especially using dialect as a white writer; so far, she has described the decision as “important [in letting] black characters address the ugliness of Jim Crow themselves, in their own voice.”
I could say more about this novel than what’s here—Hillary Jordan is a master of description and end lines, for instance—but I’ll leave that up for you to discover as you piece together the other secrets of this novel.
The beautifully grotesque writing and the multiple perspectives certainly make this novel stand out. What makes it stand out the most, though, is Jordan’s decision to trap these characters together in one place: a heavy, bloody, foul, and unforgiving land. Like any great Southern Gothic novel, the despair, conflicts, love, and grotesque are very much rooted in and reinforced by place. On every acre lies a surprise—sometimes passion, sometimes a puddle, sometimes a pile of excrement, and often, a rattlesnake. If you like a good Southern Gothic novel, this is one that will mire you in the farm as much as it does its characters. This novel will pull your boots off with every step—like, well…mud.
Hillary Jordan will be reading and signing her novel, Mudbound, at the KI Center on Saturday, April 21, at 4 pm. Reserve your FREE ticket for a guaranteed seat here.