Review of “Mudbound” by Hillary Jordan

Mudbound provides a sobering but realistic picture of the post-World War II Jim Crow South.

Set in rural Mississippi, the story centers around two interconnected families: the white McAllan family, and their tenant sharecroppers, the black Jackson family.

Henry McAllan married his wife Laura late in life and then surprised her by adopting farming and taking her and their two children, Amanda Leigh and Isabelle, to live at a horribly broken-down place she promptly names Mudbound. Henry’s misanthropic father, Pappy, lives with them and generally makes life miserable for anyone he encounters, especially Laura. But Henry’s brother Jamie, younger than Henry by nineteen years, captivates Laura by the impression of his strength, although later she abruptly becomes disillusioned with Henry upon discovering, in her view, that he was no superhuman hero but just another weak man.

The black sharecropping family is headed by Hap and Florence Jackson; their war-hero son Ronsel served in World War II in the famous 761st Tank Battalion.

Tankers of the 761st Medium Tank Battalion - European Theater of Operations, August, 1944 Photo: U.S. Army Military History Institute

Two decades before, Henry had fought in World War I, coming home with white hair and a limp, but no other discernible problems. Jamie, like Ronsel, served in World War II, and came home damaged and dependent on alcohol. The only one who could understand what Jamie was going through was Ronsel, but white and blacks were not allowed to mix in the poisonous atmosphere of the post-war South.

[During World War II, some 2.5 million black Americans registered for the draft. Some 909,000 served in the Army; 167,000 in the Navy, and over 17,000 enlisted in the Marines. They went overseas to put their lives at risk in the fight for freedom and democracy, and they come home to find these ideals were not meant for them in their own country.

Ironically, the Ku Klux Klan became reenergized by the returning black veterans, who wore their uniforms and seemed to know no fear, and thought they could assert their equality. The response of the KKK was a renewal of violence.

According to the Social Science Institute at Fisk University, groups of blacks and whites clashed at least 242 times in 47 cities in 1943 alone.]

The story begins with Pappy’s death and then backtracks. By the time of Pappy’s death, Henry is 49, Jamie is 29, and Laura’s age is between the two of them.

The McAllans (except for the evil Pappy) are not as racist as some of the others in their town, but hold condescending attitudes toward blacks nevertheless. As Henry mused:

“Whatever else the colored man may be, he’s our brother. A younger brother, to be sure, undisciplined and driven by his appetites, but also kindly and tragic and humble before God. For good or ill, he’s been given into our care.”

Jamie, the most upbeat and charming of the bunch, seems to cause nothing but trouble. Laura can hardly resist his allure, especially in comparison with the stolid Henry. This creates unfortunate consequences. But they are not as horrifically tragic as those that result from Jamie’s insistence on his right to pal around with Ronsel, despite warnings from the racists in town.

Discussion: This story is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of six characters: black and white; male and female. Sometimes plot points overlap so that the reader gets different perspectives of the same events.

It’s ironic that one of the few likable characters – Jamie – is the one who is considered responsible for creating the most havoc. But the other characters are not honest with themselves in their eagerness to assign blame. Jamie is the most considerate and enlightened of the bunch, but the small-minded society in which he now lives cannot tolerate such attitudes.

Laura has occasional bouts of backbone, but mostly she buys into the acceptable roles offered by her house and in her town, and her love for Jamie turns off like a faucet when she detects in him what she considers to be weakness. (And I found her definition of weakness to be repellent.)

Henry is inconsiderate and cold, but Pappy is a hostile, domineering sociopath. As evil as he was, though, I didn’t find him unrealistic. On the other hand, Laura’s meek toleration of him seemed impossible to believe, even given the rigidity of roles for Southern women at the time.

I’ve seen reviews that hold the Jacksons to be too saintly, but I didn’t see them that way; I thought they were good people who were moderately flawed, and who were the victims of a profound injustice that struck a lot of good people at that time.

Evaluation: I am gratified to read a book that gives a more accurate portrayal of the viciousness that inspired some whites to don sheets after black veterans returned from fighting in World War II, mistakenly thinking that they might now be entitled to be treated like fellow human beings. (See, for example, this account of lynching after the war.)

The funeral of George Dorsey, a black veteran of World War II lynched in Georgia in 1946.

In this respect the book contrasts favorably to the more “feel good” story of The Help. Leonard Pitts, Jr., one of my favorite columnists, recently wrote:

“As Americans, we lie about race. We lie profligately, obstinately and repeatedly. The first lie is of its existence as an immutable reality delivered unto us from the very hand of God. That lie undergirds all the other lies, lies of Negro criminality, mendacity, ineducability. Lies of sexless mammies and oversexed wenches. Lies of docile child-men and brutal bucks. Lies that exonerate conscience and cover sin with sanctimony.”

This book tells less lies than most. It is worth reading.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing, 2009

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28 Responses to Review of “Mudbound” by Hillary Jordan

  1. I read this last year and enjoyed it. Think I rated it 4/5. Looking forward to her her new book as well.

  2. I haven’t heard of this book before but it definitely seems like one that I would be interested in. Thanks for the review!

  3. Jenny says:

    I haven’t heard of this either but it sounds important in order to maybe understand a little better what things were like then. Great review (and great quote).

  4. Stefanie says:

    I haven’t heard of this book either but it sounds good. I will have to look for it at my library sometime!

  5. Barbara says:

    First I’ve heard of this one but it sounds like something I would want to read. Leonard Pitts is one terrific columnist. I always learn things from him but he writes down to earth common sense.

    One thing about the lies: I grew up in IL with racists who claimed they weren’t racist. That was the first lie I heard about racism. In the 1950s there was a town near Peoria, IL that didn’t allow blacks in the city limits except in daylight and then only if they were just passing through on the highway. Probably those people swore they weren’t racist, just protecting themselves or some such nonsense.

    • You should read the book Sundown Towns by James W. Loewen, about all the towns that had rules of Whites Only After Dark, enforced by violence. Illinois was one of the worst! And this is not a historical phenomenon. As Loewen reports, “the number of sundown towns and suburbs continued to grow after 1954, peaking around 1968. Many sundown towns had not a single black household as late as the 2000 census, and some still openly exclude to this day.”

  6. Wow, that sounds like a very powerful read. I will definitely look further into this book and the author’s other work. Never heard of this book – glad you’ve brought it to our attention!

  7. Oooh, I haven’t read a review of this in a while. It was on my list when it first came out but I didn’t get around to it. It sounds like a very difficult book, emotionally but one I still want to read.

  8. I just got this one and I’m excited to read it. It sounds like it’s written about a different class of white people than The Help is. Not that those with money were opposed to donning a white sheet – they just acted more sophisticated when they did it. No one can deliver a backhanded compliment like Southerners can, bless their hearts.

  9. zibilee says:

    I have been curious about this book for some time now, and I think that even though the characters are hard to like, it tells a very important story and one that is both emotional and probably at sometimes, is difficult to swallow. I need to read this book, and now that it has your thumbs up, it’s going to the top of my list. Great review on this one!

  10. I thought this book gave a lot of food for thought. I am excited to read Jordan’s new book!

  11. Julie P. says:

    I think I might like this one….

  12. Wonderful review — I too hadn’t heard of this but will have to look for it — I’d been dubious about The Help.

  13. Staci says:

    I’ve heard of this one and haven’t read any of her other works but it sounds like one to look for.

  14. JoAnn says:

    This has been on my wish list since it came out. I love books told from multiple points of view… great review!

  15. Les in NE says:

    Excellent review! I think I enjoyed the book a bit better than you, though. I read it over a year ago and it made my Top Ten for 2010, with a rating of 5/5. You can read my review here, if you’re interested.

  16. Glad to know about this book. I’ve been trying to decide whether to read The Help or not.

  17. Margot says:

    Since I’ve been so gung-ho about The Help, it looks like I need to read something like this book to give me a bigger picture.

  18. Jenners says:

    I could have SWORN you read and reviewed and raved about this book previously. I guess I am wrong.

  19. Jenny says:

    That is a wonderful passage from Leonard Pitts. I was trying to think of the name of this book earlier this month, when The Help came out, because I remember hearing about it and thinking that it sounded like a good, textured portrayal of race relations in the South. By contrast with The Help. And wondering if that was indeed the case. And now I know! 🙂

  20. This book sounds really good. My sister and I recently read The Help, and I think this one would be a good comparison.

  21. Alyce says:

    I tend to like the feel good books better, for the obvious reason that they are easier to read (emotionally). However, I do know that it is important to get a clear and honest idea of what really happened in the South and what life was really like there.

  22. stacybuckeye says:

    I didn’t read The Help, but I’m tempted to check this one out.

  23. I haven’t yet read this (did read Jordan’s forthcoming WHEN SHE WOKE … also about ‘race’ in a way). Very interesting format, with the six rotating narrators; I’ll be sure to put this on my wish list.

  24. i read this one last fall and found pappy to be one of the most hateful characters ever! i like southern period fiction but it always runs the risk of coming across less than authentically or in a slightly simpering or patronizing way. that said, i still found this to be a solid read.

  25. Steph says:

    I loved this book too, and although I liked The Help very much, it didn’t measure up to Mudbound. Back when I read and reviewed it, I found its exploration of racism to be unusually complex.

  26. Caroline says:

    This sounds interesting. I read a novel by Bernice McFadden, Glorious. the beginning is also set in the Jim Crow South.
    I remember the discussion when Clint Eastwood did Flags of our Fathers but didn’t include any black soldiers although it’s a fact there were some…

  27. Trish says:

    I seem to be spending a lot of time in the 60s lately–watching The Kennedys miniseries, Mad Men, and reading and listening to The Help. I love The Help but agree that it tends to be a little more on the upbeat side–perhaps why the widespread appeal? I own Mudbound and have heard wonderful things–I’m glad you hear you feel it gives a more honest portrayal. I’m curious about the 3.5 though!

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