Mudbound

Social justice (and literature) liteThis book and I hit it off at first. It’s a quick, easy read and I enjoyed the first 2/3 or so. But looking back, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Mudbound is about two families living in the Mississippi Delta: one black and one white. It’s 1946 and racial tensions are high: the black GIs returning from WW2 are no longer willing to put up with being second-class citizens, but the white population is equally unwilling to allow change. The book is written in th

Social justice (and literature) liteThis book and I hit it off at first. It’s a quick, easy read and I enjoyed the first 2/3 or so. But looking back, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Mudbound is about two families living in the Mississippi Delta: one black and one white. It’s 1946 and racial tensions are high: the black GIs returning from WW2 are no longer willing to put up with being second-class citizens, but the white population is equally unwilling to allow change. The book is written in the first person from 6 (six!) different viewpoints (and a debut novel at that.... had I not loved Jordan’s When She Woke I would never have attempted this), including Ronsel (a black soldier), Hap and Florence (his parents), Jaime (a white soldier), Henry (his older brother) and Laura (Henry’s wife). To her credit, Jordan does do a passable job with the multiple narrators, who don’t sound too much alike--the streamlined nature of the writing, without much figurative language or description, helps with this, and the dialect works well enough without being impenetrable.

As I said, I liked the story at first; it drew me in quickly and entertained me. But there isn’t much more I can say for it. So, then, the problems:THE PLOT: Terribly predictable (and melodramatic). One-third of the way through I predicted all the dramatic events that would happen in the rest of the book. And I’m not usually good at that.THE CHARACTERS: The black family are stock characters of the “sympathetic victims” variety: hardworking, family-values folk. Hap is the forgiving, scripture-quoting preacher. Florence is the closer-to-earth midwife. Ronsel is the bright young guy who's beat down by the system. They have potential but are too stuck in their stock roles and personalities to realize it.The white family is more complex (they’re allowed to have flaws), but not much more. Henry is a simple man who loves farming: exactly the same on the inside as he appears from the outside. His father, Pappy, is the stock evil racist with no redeeming qualities. Laura gets a lot of page time (and her voice feels the most authentic), but she’s pathetic; she’s pathetically grateful to Henry for marrying her at the ripe old age of 31 and despite a few attempts to act for herself, she’s still pathetic at the end. (Bizarrely, in an interview in the back of the book Jordan states that Laura is based on her own grandmother, but "much more fiery and rebellious"--since neither adjective describes Laura in the slightest, I can only conclude either that Jordan's grandmother was an automaton, or, more

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likely, that Jordan utterly failed at turning the idea in her head into a character on the page.) Jamie is the most interesting of the bunch: he seems like a basically good guy whose PTSD leads him into destructive behavior, and he’s racist in a subtle, Huckleberry-Finn kind of way (at least, the other white characters make him look subtle; more on that later).

THE SETTING: Black and white, in more ways than one. Essentially, the rural South = bad; cities, or anywhere in Europe = good. “Violence is part and parcel of country life,” Laura tells us, and to prove the point, Jordan includes a family of bit-part characters that do nothing but rape, murder, and drunkenly shoot off guns (and these are the only farm people we meet aside from the main characters). The Mississippi Delta is full of violent racists, while the Memphis-bred Laura has apparently never even heard of Jim Crow. Europe, meanwhile, is a colorblind paradise; even German women are happy to sleep with black men and have their babies mere months after their own government finished murdering millions of pale-skinned people for not being white enough. (I’m not disputing that similar liaisons happened, but I do dispute the “colorblind paradise” portrayal. Read Andrea Levy’s Small Island for a more nuanced portrayal of wartime and post-war England; as for Germany, well, I should think the attempt to massacre all non-Aryans to create a "master race" speaks for itself.) Finally, Jordan’s failure to get even easily verifiable facts right makes me doubt her overall portrayal. The two closest towns to the McAllens’ farm are Greenville and Marietta.... and while Greenville really is a Delta town, Marietta is actually over 200 miles away in the northeast part of the state.

THE MESSAGE: Several underwhelmed reviewers have mocked the Bellwether Prize, which is meant to recognize a book that advances social justice in some way. I think the prize is a good idea. But the Washington Post nailed this one: “the book doesn't challenge our prejudices so much as give us the easy satisfaction of feeling superior to these evil Southerners.” The thing is, to advance social justice, you have to be timely. Tackle, say, the drug war’s disproportionate impact on minority communities, the poor quality of education in inner-city schools, the location of environmental hazards in minority neighborhoods. There’s no end to current social justice issues that Jordan might have written about. Instead, her message is one that even most unreformed racists of today wouldn’t dispute: racially motivated hate crimes are bad, folks! It's no wonder most people like this book: its message is so uncontroversial that nobody is uncomfortable with it. But you can't change society by hammering home points everybody already agrees with.(In fairness to Jordan, her second novel does take on timely, controversial issues; predictably, its reception has been more mixed. But it’s also so much better.)

In the end, I don’t hate this book. If you want a quick, unchallenging read about the evils of racism, it may be the book for you. If you’re looking for some redeeming social or literary value, though, best look elsewhere.

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Category: Review

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