The browns and burnt umbers on the galley cover echo the feeling of mud that spans this debut novel. Mud that slows and traps, echoing the lives of the characters in Mudbound. Jordan won the inaugural Bellwether Prize for her first novel, which depicts the Jim Crow South post World War II. That’s why the mud is apt; It describes those people stuck in this dark, dirty world. This is the story of two families, one black and one white, in the Mississippi Delta whose lives impact one another in a multitude of ways. Told in alternating chapters by Laura, her husband Henry, his brother Jamie, sharecropper Hap, his wife Florence and their son Ronsel, the story unfolds in subtle and brutal ways. Here is city bred Laura McAllan as she is trying to raise her family on her husband’s farm.
I was never so angry as those first months on the farm, watching Henry be happy. Becoming a landowner had transformed him, bringing out a childlike eagerness I’d rarely seen in him. He would come in bursting with the exciting doings of his day: his decision to plant thirty acres in soybeans, his purchase of a fine sow from a neighbor, the new week killer he’d read about in the Progressive Farmer. I listened, responding with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. I tried to shape my happiness out of the fabric of his, like a good wife ought to, but his contentment tore at me. I would see him standing at the edge of the fields with his hands in his pockets, looking out over the land with fierce pride of possession, and think, He’s never looked at me like that, not once.
Ronsel comes across as the most sympathetic character. Even as a child, Florence sees something in him. He’s smart and can go places. He joins the army and ends up a sergeant in the 761st tank battalion, one of the first all black battalions to end up on the front line of the war. In Europe, Ronsel saw a different world, meeting people who saw him as a savior, not as a black soldier. Able to leave behind the harsh realities of life in the South for a few years, he returns only to discover that he’s still a second class citizen. Though he went off to fight for his country, the bigots in Jim Crow South still consider him less than a man. He befriends Jamie, another war vet, who has returned altered from his experience as a bomber pilot. His despair makes him unconsciously selfish. Having become an alcoholic, he sees a kindred spirit in Ronsel, but doesn’t think beyond having a new drinking partner.
Everything unfurls in slow motion. That the outcome is bad is never in question. Jordan superbly depicts the savageness of racism.