Cotton, the Klan, Whiskey, and Murder in (You Guessed it) Mississippi


I heard an interesting story on NPR the other day about Mississippians tiring of their state's movie reputation as the place where anything bad that can happen to black people has, well, happened. The story was about Tarantino's Django Unchained, which I have yet to see. Of course, Mississippi Burning comes to mind right away. Then, so do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Needless to say, Mississippi's historical quirks are front and center in Hollywood.

Mississippi's literary rep is perhaps even worse. While The Help softened things up, making the Delta's sordid history of racism and murder more palatable, there are  authors who've delved into Mississippi's history a bit more bluntly. I'm thinking William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. (Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is still in my top tenish -- there might be twelve or thirteen on the list -- most awesome, must-be-read books ever published, but that's another post.)   

Hillary Jordan, an NYC author by way of Texas, writes about Mississippi with a seriously Faulknerian flavor in her debut 2008 novel, Mudbound, winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction. While Jordan's style varies considerably from Faulkner's (no stream of consciousness here), the feeling of the novel is eerily reminiscent of her Delta literary forbears. Mudbound is a novel inextricably tied to its setting, and Jordan ultimately succeeds in drawing her reader into the post-World War II American Deep South. I left the novel with visions of fingers numbed by cotton picking, sleepless hot nights, dusty farmyards, and above all human desperation, floating through my mind.

Besides evoking the setting so adeptly, Jordan's novel is strong in other ways. The story begins at the end with two brothers working against an oncoming storm to dig a hole deep enough to bury their recently-dead father. The reader quickly learns that Pappy's death was unnatural and that one brother seems less than aggrieved by his father's passing. Then the book abruptly switches to an earlier time, and the author has made her hook. The sense that the characters are moving toward a devastating conclusion never wanes, and that makes the book hard to walk away from.

Mudbound is the story of Laura McAllan, a college-educated woman who escapes spinsterhood in Memphis in the early 1940s when she meets and marries Henry. Her city life is forever altered when Henry unexpectedly moves Laura to his Mississippi homeland, settling her and their two young daughters in a shack with no electricity or running water. Laura quickly learns that the difficulties of farm life are not limited to day-to-day survival. She must cope with her overbearing, racist father-in-law, the desperation of sharecropping tenants, and her own loneliness and dissatisfaction. Soon Henry's bright-but-damaged brother Jamie returns from the warfront, as does the son of a black sharecropper who works the McAllan land. The bond that forms between the two veterans is less than acceptable in postwar Mississippi, as is the continued attraction between Jamie and Laura. Told in a chorus of voices, the novel careens toward its tragic end at a breathtaking pace. I read it in three days, which is pretty much unheard of considering my current household obligations. (And that means it was really, really good.)