Mudbound author hopes novel brings justice
By Rita Papazian
During her talk at Fairfield University last Tuesday, Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound, was asked if her characters come back to her. Was she interested in writing a sequel to her critical acclaimed first novel?
"No, I am so done with those characters," said the author, whose first novel was chosen as the 2008 New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association Fiction Book of the Year; the 2009 Alex Award from the American Library Association and the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded biennially to an unpublished debut novel that addresses issues of social justice.
Jordan may be done with her first novel's characters, but not so for the readers left spellbound by the book which author Stewart O'Nan describes as a "real page-turner -- a tangle of history, tragedy, and romance powered by guilt, moral indignation, and a near chorus of unstoppable voices."
Author Barbara Kingsolver, sponsor of the Bellwether Prize, said Jordan "writes with a voice of a Delta storm. Her characters walked straight out of 1940s Mississippi and into the part of my brain where sympathy and anger and love reside, leaving my heart racing. They are with me still."
No doubt the characters, especially the six characters representing one black and one white family, whose lives the author relates in alternating parallel narratives, linger in a reader's mind long after the last page is read. Without revealing the very compelling details of the plot that focus on the return home of two celebrated World War II soldiers, one white, one black, who strive for love and honor in a brutal time and place, the 1946 Mississippi Delta, one does wonder what happens to their lives moving forward.
Jordan, a former advertising copywriter who grew up in Dallas, Texas, and Muskogee, Okla., now lives in the Hudson River Valley town of Tivoli, N.Y. She spoke at an event billed as a "Celebration of Book Clubs," co-sponsored by Fairfield University and the Fairfield Public Library. More than 150 people, many members of local book clubs, listened as the author explained how she had conceived the idea for the novel whose success has led her to drop out of her very lucrative career as a copywriter to pursue fiction writing. She said writers know they are writers because "it is the only thing that makes you happy and you know it's not going to make you happy."
"We tell stories because we have to. "¦ I pull it out of my brain one sentence at a time," she said. Writing may be slow, but the talent is evident with this debut novel, not only in the writing, but also in the way she handles racial injustice and racism.
Fairfield University Professor Michael White, who is director of the university's MFA program in creative writing, introduced Jordan and her novel, which has themes of racial injustice and racism. Mudbound may remind readers of White's own Soul Catcher, which echoes the dark period of slavery in this country. White's next novel, The Beautiful Assassin, will be published in March.
White cited Judy Willis of the Winston-Salem Journal who described Jordan as "masterful in her discernment of the cultural nuances that separate black and white." She applauded Jordan for "her willingness to look beyond our beleaguered past to the common humanity that we share but often choose to ignore."
Jordan said the inspiration for the novel came from her grandfather who, for a short while, had owned a farm in Mississippi where he and her grandmother described their experiences of farm life as reflecting "primitive isolation." From the narratives of her grandparents' lives, Jordan developed her characters and plot for her novel, whose title Mudbound was the actual name of her grandfather's farm.
Through her character, Laura, the wife of the white farmer, the author writes: "When I think of the farm, I think of mud. Limning my husband's fingernails and encrusting the children's knees and hair. Sucking at my feel like a greedy newborn on the breast. Marching in boot-shaped patches across the plank floors of the house. There was no defeating it. The mud coated everything. I dreamed in brown. "¦ It is tempting to believe that what happened on the farm was inevitable; that in fact all the events of our lives are as predetermined as the moves in a game of Tic Tac Toe: Start in the middle square and no one wins. Start in one of the corners and the game is yours. And if you don't start, if you let the other person start? You lose; simple as that."
There is no loss for the readers of Mudbound. It is as compelling and powerful as critics describe.
"What started as a family novel became a story of social justice," Jordan said. She decided to write the novel from the perspective of the six main characters so that the black characters, themselves, would have a voice. "I wanted to give them justice," she said.
The reader hears the voice of Florence, the wife in the black family: "Slept four nights in that house and by the end of 'em I'd a bet money there was gone by trouble in it. Soft citybred woman like Laura McAllan weren't meant for living the Delta. Delta'll take a woman like that and suck all the sap out of her till there ain't nothing left but bone and grudge, again him that brung her here and the land that holds him and her with him."
Jordan read excerpts from her novel in a thick Mississippi accent that she mastered from her experience spending time in Mississippi and talking to the women. Her readings appeared so dramatic and authentic that if people in the audience had closed their eyes, they'd feel as if they were in a theater listening to Joanne Woodward portraying the Southern characters that she has done so well during her film and stage career.
"Literature is writing that pierces the soul," said Jordan to her audience, who no doubt felt Jordan's own writings piercing their soul.
Laurie Weiner, who leads the Fairfield Woods Library's Book & Bagels Book Club eight times a year, selected Mudbound for the club last year. She selected the book because it was "historical and very compelling. Obama had just been elected and there was a lot of discussion about racial issues," she said. Weiner praised Jordan's six character narratives for the writing technique enables readers to get into the characters.
Claire Shumofsky, a former Westport school librarian and teacher, said she felt a sense of empathy for the sharecroppers' lives and the sadness of their son, "a decorated black war hero returning home to the segregated South. It aroused my sympathy." Schumofsky's own father was a Army colonel during World War II and led an all African-American unit. She said her father's letters chronicling his experiences when the Buchenwald Concentration Camp was liberated are now in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan.
Karen Ronald, Deputy Library Director at the Fairfield Main Library said Jordan's book is a favorite among book clubs. "It's extremely well-written and easy to read. It's a powerful story," said Ronald, who described last week's event as the first of planned yearly celebrations of book clubs.
Ronald said the book selection for this year's "One Book, One Town," program will be announced on Dec. 2. She said 2,000 local residents participated in the town-wide reading event last year. This year, the author will be a guest speaker on March 24 at Fairfield Warde High School.