Author: Hillary Jordan
When Henry McAllan moves his city-bred wife, Laura, to a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta in 1946, she finds herself in a place both foreign and frightening. Henry’s love of rural life is not shared by Laura, who struggles to raise their two young children in an isolated shotgun shack under the eye of her hateful, racist father-in-law.
Jordan won the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Mudbound, her first novel. The prize was founded by Barbara Kingsolver to reward books of conscience, social responsibility, and literary merit. In addition to meeting all of the above qualifications, Jordan has written a story filled with characters as real and compelling as anyone we know.
It is 1946 in the Mississippi Delta, where Memphis-bred Laura McAllan is struggling to adjust to farm life, rear her daughters with a modicum of manners and gentility, and be the wife her land-loving husband, Henry, wants her to be. It is an uphill battle every day. Things started badly when Henry’s trusting nature resulted in the family being done out of a nice house in town, thus relegating them to a shack on their property. In addition, Henry’s father, Pappy, a sour, mean-spirited devil of a man, moves in with them.
The real heart of the story, however, is the friendship between Jamie, Henry’s too-charming brother, and Ronsel Jackson, son of sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm. They have both returned from the war changed men: Jamie has developed a deep love for alcohol and has recurring nightmares; Ronsel, after fighting valiantly for his country and being seen as a man by the world outside the South, is now back to being just another black “boy.”
Told in alternating chapters by Laura, Henry, Jamie, Ronsel, and his parents, Florence and Hap, the story unfolds with a chilling inevitability. Jordan’s writing and perfect control of the material lift it from being another “ain’t-it-awful” tale to a heart-rending story of deep, mindless prejudice and cruelty. This eminently readable and enjoyable story is a worthy recipient of Kingsolver’s prize and others as well. —Valerie Ryan