Mudbound, Hilary Jordan, Algonquin Books, 2008, 324 pp
Mudbound was the 2008 winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize, which is awarded to an as yet unpublished manuscript. The purpose of the prize is to support a literature of social change. The winning books are all novels, described as "serious literary fiction" on the Bellwether Prize website.
I am not in disagreement with the purpose of the prize. In fact, I feel that fiction dealing with issues that need social change ought to be of high quality. My problem with Mudbound is that the writing is far below what I would describe as high quality and in fact is pedestrian, dull and lacking in any magic.
It is a story of racism, family troubles and feminist issues; a story with much potential for greatness. Told through alternating chapters in the points of view of its main characters, the various beliefs about whites, blacks, men and women show up loud and clear. There is no preaching but neither is there any clear sense of where the author stands. Jordan seems to be presenting all the sides and views and leaving the social change up to chance.
Laura, destined to live as a spinster, is courted by Henry, a self-absorbed Southern man who yearns to farm his own land. They marry, he buys a farm without consulting Laura, and when his attempt to set up a house in town for his wife and two daughters falls through, he expects her to suck it up and live amongst the mud, floods, insects and isolation, keeping house with no electricity or plumbing in the 1940s!
Then there are Henry's ultra racist and patriarchal father as well as Henry's flighty, war-damaged, alcoholic but charming brother, both of whom join the household. Along with a family of negro sharecroppers and a Jim Crow local doctor, everything that could go wrong does. It is all heartbreaking but some characters emerge with hope in their hearts. Laura learns to love her blockhead of a husband after slaving for him after all those years.
I am sure there are readers for this novel, just as there are readers for Water For Elephants, The Memory Keeper's Daughter and Little Bee, etc. If those readers are wading into issues of injustice, abuse and racism for the first time then these novels have served a purpose. They are not, however, literary fiction. I just want to make that clear.
(All of the novels mentioned here are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)