Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan

Set just after WWII, Mudbound is the story of two families in rural Mississippi. Laura is gratefully married finally at the advanced age of 31. Her husband, Henry, has transplanted Laura and their two young daughters from Memphis to a remote farm with only a shack for a house, as he fulfills his long-time dream to own a farm. One of his tenant farmers, Hap Jackson, is proud to be working half-shares, knowing that sharecropping would mean keeping only a quarter of his crop, thus guaranteeing long-term indebtedness to the landlord. Hap's wife, Florence, a strong woman gifted with healing, overcomes her initial wariness to help the floundering Laura adjust to farm life. Relationships between these characters and between the two families, one white and one black, are complicated first by the arrival of Henry's abusive father, Pappy, to live with them and then by the return of two discharged soldiers: Henry's younger brother, Jamie, and Hap and Florence's son, Ronsel.

My book club liked this book, finding it an engrossing read. Most felt the author deployed foreshadowing and description well to create suspense and keep them reading to find out what would happen. However, a few found the story predictable, and the suspense a bit heavy-handed. Some people thought the author tried to force emotional response by pushing obvious buttons, such as the Holocaust and lynchings. A few were disappointed by the ending, saying that the writing, while excellent in the earlier parts, seemed rushed at the end.

For me as a writer, this is one of the great benefits of being in a book club: seeing how personal preferences and circumstances influence a reader's reaction to a book. Someone beleaguered by end-of-term papers and exams to grade may not have the time or energy to read as attentively as at other times, or may turn to a book for relaxation rather than full intellectual and emotional engagement.

We all found the characters more complex and interesting than those in The Help, which is also about race relations in the South, though at a later date. Even Pappy, the most stereotyped character, has moments demonstrating his humanity. I found Henry the most interesting. He could have been presented as a classic overbearing husband, but what would seem like tyrannical behaviour today seems normal within the context of the times, and the chapters in his voice show not only his care and concern for his family but also his steadfast and practical nature. Each chapter is devoted to a single voice, alternating between Laura, Henry, Florence, Hap, Jamie, and Ronsel.

The characters play out the conflict between personal morals and society's mores. Those characters who try to transcend the overt and accepted racism of the rural South, still find themselves reacting in ways dictated by the local culture. Laura's great moment of growth and change comes when she recognises this dynamic. This same conflict is played out in other ways, such as the way society dictates family relationships. The story explores who within a marriage makes decisions and how children should behave towards their elderly parents, as Florence and Hap trade decision-making control back and forth, and Henry negotiates the conflicting demands of Laura, Pappy and his own heart.

Jordan handles the emotional connections between the characters particularly well. I was fascinated by how the relationship between Henry and Jamie plays out and the one between Jamie and Pappy, what they could forgive in each other and what they could not. My book club also talked a bit about the difference between an extramarital affair and an affair of the heart. We cannot, of course, control to whom we are attracted, though we can control how we behave with that person. The interesting question is how much is too much. The challenge is finding the line where innocent flirting or fantasizing crosses over into betrayal. We agreed that the great strength of the book lay in its depiction of the way violence is legitimised by the group environment, and the way a person's character is formed within the framework of his or her society, either dominated by it or reacting to it.

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