Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep . Any shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood: Howdy boys! Remember me?As this story opens, in 1946, Henry and Jamie McAllan are burying their father in the flat, muddy fertile land of Henry's farm. Henry's city-bred wife Laura, trapped in a grueling life she didn't choose, stands by with their two girls. As they dig, the brothers realize they've accidentally unearthed the grave of a runaway slave.
"We can't bury our father in a nigger's grave," Henry said. "There's nothing he'd have hated more."
No one seems to be grieving the death of "Pappy," an old man who was defined by his hatred and died under suspicious circumstances. Why did this happen? To answer that question, the story loops around, delving into the characters' history and how they came to this farm in the Mississippi Delta. It moves seamlessly among different points of view, each with a distinctive voice and personality.
The story revolves around two families: the McAllans and the Jacksons, a family of "colored" sharecroppers living and working on their land. Under the feudal system of sharecropping, the Jacksons and others like them farm the McAllans' land, barely earning a subsistence wage.
Their lives are shared by Henry's kind-hearted, charismatic brother Jamie, fighting a losing battle against the demons that followed him home from World War II.
The Jacksons' oldest son Ronsel also returns from the war. After serving his country in the 761st "Black Panther" Tank Battalion, and expanding the boundaries of his world through his tour of duty in Europe, Ronsel is no longer content to keep his eyes down and go through the back door. In Mississippi, where racial discrimination is enforced through vigilante violence, this is likely to lead to disaster. Ronsel's mother Florence, who loves him passionately and has prayed continually for his return home, knows he can't stay. It is only a question of whether he'll leave Mississippi before it's too late.
It's incredibly difficult to tell the truth about racism. Often stories written in a setting like this, exploring these themes, offer us characters who seem color blind and are willing to fight the injustices they see. This makes the topic palatable for us. But it also presents us with characters who seem out of their own time, and it often doesn't ring true.
In Mudbound, racism controls the lives of people in the community, while in a hole in the muddy earth, the skeleton of a runaway slave takes us back to a time of even more vicious racial inequality. This powerful image reflects the themes in this novel, which explores the many strata of racism. Racial hatred rules "Pappy," who seems to thirst for the blood of black people. He is almost a caricature of a bigot, yet chillingly, he is wholly believable. But it also encompasses seemingly decent white folks who have a paternalistic sense of superiority over blacks, which they view as a simpler, almost feral race. And it includes those who are kind to "colored" folk, but never let them forget their place, and never consider their needs as equal to their own.
I admire this author for telling the truth, without hiding its complexity. Today, when racism seems invisible to many people, the picture she painted reflects what I've seen throughout my life. "Jim Crow" laws and lynchings are a thing of the past, thank God, buried like the bones of the old slave. Yet so many levels of racism do exist in my lifetime -- sometimes glaring and sometimes so subtle you just see glimmers of it, yet you feel its destructive energy.
I grew up in a university town in Eastern North Carolina. The street I lived on ran through my little neighborhood, which clustered around the university. It was populated with many faculty families like my own. We lived modestly, but quite comfortably. If I rode my bike up my street, and through downtown, it took me through what the locals shamelessly called "Nigger Town," a neighborhood made up of neglected roads and tiny, ramshackle houses. I met few middle class African American families in my town. People didn't talk about it, but my parents wisely made sure my eyes were open.
In my school, desegregation was probably only about a decade old. Black and white children rarely sat together in the cafeteria. it just wasn't done, and no one commented on it. Many students, like me, had what I'd consider privileged childhoods. My parents were always on a tight budget, but we never lacked for anything we really wanted or needed, and they always managed to scrape together money for ballet or music lessons. Other students -- many of them black -- wrapped up part of their lunches, because there might not be a meal at home later. It surprises me, and saddens me a little, that I never said anything or tried to help. But I certainly never forgot it or stopped being grateful for the tremendous changes I've seen in my lifetime.
Mudbound is a beautiful novel but not a comfortable one. I found myself liking characters who had decidedly unenlightened views about racial equality. I saw the complexities of marriage in a time when a relationship was shaped by the man's need for dominance and control. I felt angry, hopeful, compassionate, horrified, and sad. The people and events in this book stuck in me like thorns, and they're still with me.
And damn -- this book was a page-turner! I kept finding excuses to pick it up, no matter what I needed to do, eager to find out what would happen next. It was heart-wrenching, but I loved it. It is one of those books I will never forget.
This novel won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, which was founded by Barbara Kingsolver and recognizes outstanding literature of social change.
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