I was recommended this read by Sunday night #APLitchat teachers so it’s fitting that I finished this book over the weekend and have a keen need to address it. Plus, big news, I’m officially out of a book slump. I can’t say I was in a reading slump because I was constantly reading the news, articles, short stories, and anthologies, but I haven’t read a book all summer. This, from the girl with the blog about books.
I wasn’t aware when I started the story, because who reads the author discussion at the beginning, that Hillary Jordan’s grandmother, and real life farm, Mudbound was what inspired the novel. Everyone here today knows that I’m a sucker for grandmother literature. Lucy Calkins advises her writers to keep a running list called “Writing Territories.” I think Ms. McClure outlines what these look like the best. When I was still teaching at Scotland, I wrote my own writing territories to introduce the concept to my creative writing class. This was probably two years ago, but I think they still ring true today. I love using my grandmother’s stroke tone, the virginity of southern girls and its harness, clotheslines and Carolina red mud, widows on grand second floor terraces with handkerchiefs, and rain, too much rain, rain so caked with mud, it can no longer be known as two separate things.
Which is why I wish I wrote Mudbound. Mudbound is the story of land and the people that reside on that land, both owned and unowned. It is the story of a full crop season, a pair of families deeply interwoven with poisonous roots and it’s told from the multiple perspectives of the farm. I love a book where narration changes every chapter, but it’s not often that those books turn out so well, when every character given the opportunity to speak bends the influence of the one that came before.
I think the best way to describe it is by using my favorite idea from the book. The voiced men are full of “bone-sense,” something that comes from an “older, darker place.” They move, make decisions, and crack white like scars all in the physical sense. They drink to soothe their mind. They take from the body what they believe is taken from the town’s moral conscience. They think with the turning of the land, the seeding of the crop, and the thrust of rain. The women, however, are “head-sense,” moving with passion built on daily wear and tear desire. Florence, my favorite character, is described as all body – a rough, tall woman, with the force of a “Delta Storm. However, she handles the inequities with her mind and then uses those churned thoughts for the utility of her body. She is a character that women can be proud of.
This book is also one of those books that leaves the cliffhanger on the tip of every chapter. The “if I just would have known then…” or “that’s the last time I heard his voice..” takes the reader through a slow burn. When the great moment comes, and even when it has left the land, the anticipation of hearing the angle of every character still heightens the book through its end. Ronsel, my second favorite character gets the last word (which is significant due to the big scene. He ends with what I believe is Jordan’s great social commentary of the book:
“But to make the story come out differently I’d have to overcome so much: birth and education and oppression, fear and deformity and shame, anyone of which is enough to defeat a man” (322).
And isn’t this true when a system is built to keep the land in the hands of the generation before. An ownership passed down like a belief. A tenure of laws built on the justice of making a profit. A claim and a title that cant be read. But those other hands, calloused and bruised, glued together so they can’t sign a name, hold another, or shake on it – we’ve used those to defeat a man before he can even grip that system to tear it down.
And this is what I like best about this book. It’s set in WWII, two of the male characters face different life circumstances at the hands of the war, but it is not a book about WWII. It’s a book about raising an unsettled loss into a belief system that rides one side at the helplessness of another. I think sometimes it’s hard to see that timeline and be able to look in the mirror. While men, good and bad, were fighting Nazis, we had laws that pursued the disregard of human beings that I would argue still dilute our waters today. Our hands weren’t clean either.
This book is not only brilliant because of the many voices that ring true and relentless, but because of the deep history that our society tends to neglect until it’s a major motion picture that’s not nominated for any awards. Or until a young and powerful gymnast chooses to honor her country with her hands behind her back instead of on her heart. Or when the media feeds 24 hour news of shootings until the cases no longer affect the populace and we just call it “another one…” Maybe this book will remind us of who belong to, each other.
(Thanks, Mother Teresa).
I am a writer, educator and genuine creative living on the coast of NC. Our house is built on sunshine with my husband BJ, dog named Tucker, and our two very sassy cats: Fromage and Jasper.