Sunday, April 19, 2009

MUDBOUND, April's Debut Pick

Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep. Any shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood: Howdy boys! Remember me? The thought of it kept us digging even after the blisters on our palms had burst, re-formed and burst again. Every shovelful was an agony - the old man getting in his last licks. Still, I was glad of the pain. It shoved away thought and memory.

I didn't plan to review MUDBOUND (by Hillary Jordan; Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) this month. But when my intended selection tanked (couldn't read past the first two chapters) and I walked into CONSTELLATION BOOKS, the independent book store located in my wee town, the cover beckoned and the proprietor gave an enthusiastic two thumbs up.

I was not disappointed.

In MUDBOUND, the consequences of two of the greatest atrocities of modern 'civilization' - World War II and Jim Crow - are seamlessly served upon two families, one white and one black, farming in the Mississippi delta. Laura, the educated, almost-spinster follows her new husband Henry (and his crusty, bigoted 'Pappy') to farm cotton. Black sharecroppers work the farm, including Hap, a farmer and man of God in the black community, and his wife Florence, wise in the ways of birthing. But the two most compelling voices were the two sons returning from overseas: Jamie, the charismatic white bomber pilot, and Ronsel, the black tank sargeant who has tasted a bit of better freedom on his tour of service. Both return to a world little changed, even though both are irreversibly altered, suffering from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and coping with their return home in very different ways. This story follows each character's path to redemption in the wake of overt racism and a war fought thousands of miles away.

The writing is very accessible, straightforward, and compelling. Hillary Jordan tells the story alternating all six voices in first person with each voice distinct. No mean feat. Having each voice tell his or her story made the book come alive, and without spoiling the ending, made the resolution of MUDBOUND all the more powerful. A heartrending tragedy not easily forgotten, MUDBOUND won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, an honor sponsored by Barbara Kingsolver and bestowed on works of fiction that address issues of social justice.

About the Author: Hillary Jordan grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, and spent 15 years as an advertising copyrighter before obtaining her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. She lives in Tivoli, New York.

About the Publisher: ALGONQUIN BOOKS is based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (my alma mater - go heels!) and publishes leading fiction and non-fiction books, many with a Southern focus. Some feel this is one press that flies under the radar; I agree. I've read several stupendous titles from the impressive portfolio of this can-do publisher, including Alison Bass' SIDE EFFECTS, a fabulous expose of antidepressant drug development, regulation, and marketing in the United States.

Happy reading... Peace, Linda


  1. Nice review. I can see why the cover and name both would catch your eye, they do mine as well.

    We have a Chapell Hill (note the double l) and they make a hell of a good sausage there. Just picked some up today.

  2. Yeah for North Carolina publishers!

    Sounds like an interesting read. I almost passed on Painted House, but the fact Grisham wrote it got me to crack the first page and I never looked back. This sounds compelling in the same way. I enjoy books that provide a glimpse into "recent" history; something you can almost touch through a grandparent or great uncle, though there are fewer of those connections every day.

    What was the book that tanked after 2 chapters, or are you not at liberty to say?

  3. well, you sure sold this one...

  4. Good review, but I'm not sure I'm up for a "heartrending tragedy" right now. Seems every book I've read of late has been a downer. I might pick it up after I've had a little breather of sorts. The excerpt you posted is certainly compelling. And I do like books that speak to social justice.

  5. Yay NC Publishers indeed! John, my lips are sealed; mama taught me well, say only good things!

    Paige, we do scrapple and Country Ham in NC. Jon, MUDBOUND's not a full-blown tragedy; check it out when you've recovered...

    Moonie, truth be told, five pages into this, I thought of you...

    Peace, Linda

  6. Linda,
    Thanks for the info. If it's not a full blown tragedy I'll be much more willing to pick it up sooner than later. Sounds interesting.