Friday, May 17, 2019

Fiction Review: Mudbound

I read Mudbound, Hillary Jordan's award-winning novel, for the first time back in 2010, and I remembered liking it. So, when my library system chose Mudbound as its All-County Reads book for this year and then my book group chose it as our April selection, I decided to re-read it. It didn't matter that I had read it before; I was blown away by this powerful, moving, thoughtful book set in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940's.

Laura is 31years old and living in Memphis with her parents in 1939. She is resigned to being a spinster teacher when her brother, Teddy, brings home an older man named Henry to dinner one night. Laura and Henry enjoy dinners together, stroll along the city streets, and attend theater performances, while Henry works for the Army Corps of Engineers. Eventually, they marry, and after the war ends, Henry announces that he wants to return to his home state of Mississippi and be the farmer he has always wanted to be. He finds a house in a town near the farm for Laura and he and their two young daughters to live in, but when that deal falls through, the entire family - plus Henry's miserable father, Pappy - are all forced to live in the ramshackle farmhouse, which is really just a stark cabin with no running water or electricity. Laura struggles in this hardscrabble life with the help of Florence, a black woman sharecropper on Henry's land who lives with her husband, Hap. In addition to being generally cruel, Pappy is also a malicious racist who is none too happy with Florence's presence. Henry's brother, Jamie, and Florence and Hap's son, Ronsel, both return from the war and come to live on the land as well. When the two men bond over what they experienced in the war and become friends, there are many in the area - including Pappy - who are incensed by the sight of a black man and a white man together. Ronsel became used to being treated as a hero in Europe and is unprepared for this cruel and patronizing treatment at home. As storms roll through the area during the rainy season, cutting the farm off from the surrounding area, tensions also build among the people.

Jordan has written this stunning, compelling novel from the perspectives of multiple characters so that readers hear from Laura, Henry, Florence, Hap, Jamie, and Ronsel in alternating chapters, as they each tell their part of the narrative. In this way, the reader gets to know each of them and hear first-hand what they are each experiencing. The stark contrast between the treatment of the black characters and the white characters is shocking and disturbing, not only between Jamie and Ronsel but also Hap and Florence's position farming the land as sharecroppers versus Henry's role as the landowner. The climax of the story is as horrifying as it is inevitable, given the incidents leading up to it and the people involved. Through it all, the isolation and constant struggles of the literally-mudbound farm provide a metaphor for the lives of the people who live there. I was riveted by this heartbreaking story of love, friendship, and loss during a time of such inequities and upheaval. We typically think of those post-war years as prosperous and easy, but life in rural Mississippi was anything but, especially for those with darker skin. I am so glad that I re-read this remarkable novel.

324 pages, Algonquin Books
Winner of the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Fiction
Pen America Literary Award winner

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Listen to a sample of the audio book, which is an entrancing production with seven different narrators.

Mudbound was also adapted into a movie on Netflix (which I plan to watch, even though my book group members said the novel is better!). It does look good - here's the trailer (no spoilers here, if you haven't read the book yet):

You can purchase Mudbound from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
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Or you can order Mudbound from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. It is a heartbreaking story. Thanks for this great review.

  2. Such a wonderful and powerful book. I thought the movie was well done even though I always prefer the book. Have you read her novel When She Woke? It is also amazing.

    1. No, I haven;t yet! But it's sitting on my shelf and I keep trying to convince one or the other of my book groups to read it ha ha. I really need to get to it!