Book Review: Mudbound

My copy of the book.

Silence speaks our suffering. Our fears. Our horrors. But also our dreams. Hopes and desires. Our longings. Silence is the crucible of settling, for what wasn’t expected out of life, for a life on different path, and without necessarily the negative connotation associated with it. Silence is the story of the African American experience under Jim Crow in America. Silence is the story of the white moderates who casually accepted that silence as the right order of things, the way things ought to be. Silence is loud for all those reasons and more, as it teems with emotions, thoughts, words, and actions unkempt and unfurled. Silence is the permeating theme of Hillary Jordan’s spellbinding, riveting 2008 novel, Mudbound.

Silence is the mud between the lines of Jordan’s book, in everything, on everything, between your toes and underneath your fingernails, and for as far as the eyes can see in the Deep South, binding, if you will, all six of the principle characters who receive first-person alternating chapters in which Jordan tells the story: Ronsel, Jamie, Laura, Hap, Florence, and Henry.

The silence of an African American male, Ronsel, who served with distinction in WWII with the 761st “Black Panther” Tanker Battalion, forced to humble himself before white men in Mississippi, the Delta, averting his gaze and smothering his pride. The silence of Jamie, who served in that same war, muted by the horrors of what he saw, trying to drown the nightmarish yells yearning to free themselves from his mind with alcohol (a futile endeavor, as we know). The silence of Laura, the wife of a Delta farmer, whose silence is acquiescence to a life she didn’t choose, to ignoring her own sexual desires until she no longer can (with Jamie, the brother of her husband, Henry, no less), and silence in examining her own subtler form of prejudice. The silence of Hap, held captive to the dreams he’s poured with his sweet, blood, and own humblings into the Delta land, and the silence of his wife, Florence, who rages behind her silence, fierce, forced below her station owing to her race and sex. And the silence of Henry, the stalwart older brother and husband, his mistress the Delta land, even to the prejudices of his time, although he holds them, too, to be sure, most perniciously with the nefarious sharecropping system, creating a caste system between white landlords and their black tenant farmers. All of them juxtaposed with Pappy, Henry and Jamie’s curmudgeony father, who doesn’t have his own first-person chapters like the others, but who does plenty of speaking in their stories as the belligerent racist and misogynist, and who we know dies at the beginning of the book (and for which, Laura especially is happy with that outcome), but we don’t yet know how.

They are all bound, in their own ways, by this mud: the prejudices of their time, the social norms and customs of their time, the ways of the Delta farmer’s brutish life that somehow still engenders optimism in both Henry and Hap (and both Henry and Hap detest the idea of using a tractor preferring instead the old ways of their calloused hands). Of Laura, whose own desires and wants and needs don’t matter until they burst forth in an adulterous affair. She’s, nonetheless, subservient to her husband, humbled in her own way. Florence, too, albeit she’s more fierce and “jaws” with Hap when displeased. And my goodness, Ronsel, rightfully full of piss and vinegar after WWII, having done the right thing, but also horrific things, and coming back to a country that hates him, his bedazzled uniform be damned.

In such a world, as a quote blurb on the back of the book suggests (and we later find out, is a quote from Jamie, who does plenty “wrong” in that way), “Sometimes it’s necessary to do wrong. Sometimes it’s the only way to make things right.” Jamie, who didn’t care that Ronsel was Black, or at least, didn’t care in the way Henry and Pappy cared, so he’d let Ronsel sit in the front of the truck cab with him, much to the violent and dangerous chagrin of everyone in the town. They would get drunk together, swapping war stories, leaning on each other, as it were. Two people stuck in the mud of the Delta, unable to extricate themselves. And when it came time for Jamie to play the hero, stand up to his Pappy, and save Ronsel from the KKK, he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t. The best he could do was continue the silence motif: the Klansman made him choose Ronsel’s punishment — punishment for bedding a German white woman and impregnating her, because of course — and Jamie chose Ronsel to have his tongue cut out. And then, Jamie playing the role of the charming younger brother, cool aviator of WWII, all a façade to hide his pain, of course, both from the war and older pains, like resentment at Pappy always putting him down and Henry for always being so darn stalwart, beds Laura, who wanted it for different reasons (reasons she didn’t even know she harbored until it was there in front of her and coming from her), to stick it to Henry, to Pappy, to the Delta, to life, and maybe also, because he did like “sweet Laura.”

And because we swallow it all back, all that the silence entails, Laura goes on living with Henry, bearing him another child (a son perhaps, but Jamie’s and not his), and living the farmer’s wife life. Jamie goes off to California. Hap and Florence leave the Delta and the sharecropping system for … whatever there is that isn’t that. As for Ronsel, Jordan ends the book with his chapter and addresses it to us, the reader, telling us it would be neat and tidy to tell us Ronsel rose above his station, above Jim Crow, above having his tongue removed by Klansmen, and that he went on to make something of his life. Maybe he did. But she’s not going to explicitly tell us that because that’s what we and she herself wants to hear. Instead, such an ending is possible. “If he was stubborn as well as lucky. If he really had a shine.”

Oh, as for Pappy, who should be thought of as the afterthought that his waste of space is: I was wondering who would kill him. Would it be Ronsel and then that’s why Ronsel was killed, at least I assumed he would be killed the way Jordan talked about him throughout the book? She was especially sneaky when in a Hap-narrated chapter, Hap closes off his chapter with something to the effect of, “That was the last time I ever heard my son’s voice.” Or would it be Jamie, finally standing up to his dad? Or even Henry because he loves Jamie so much as the big brother and he stepped in to do what needed to be done? Hell, goodness knows Laura had plenty of reason to kill the old man. Then, we learn that Florence was hellbent on sticking a knife in him after Ronsel’s tongue was taken out. Alas, toward the end of the novel, we learn Jamie did kill Pappy with a pillow looking him in the eye, as Pappy teased Jamie he was unable to do (since he killed men from “ten thousand miles up” during the war).

For his waste of space life, it was fitting that Pappy was buried in a slave’s grave overseen by a Black preacher in Hap and with nobody quite grieving his death for they had finally achieve his silence, a welcome silence rather than a resentful one, a grudge-building one, like all the other silences.

As you may be able to tell, I’m smitten by this book inspired by Jordan’s own grandmother’s experience, a world “full of contradictions, of terrible beauty.” Terrible beauty is one way to describe Jordan’s prose with the utmost of compliments, particularly the dialogue, raw and authentic through six distinctive voices (as well as seven through Pappy’s voice). With a little less than 75 pages left in the novel, I was reading as fast I could to see what would happen to Ronsel (and Jamie and Laura). Jordan’s prose flowed better than the mud she stuck her characters in, and spoke volumes louder than her characters ever felt they could.

In April of 2023, Mudbound is my favorite fiction read of the year.

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