DNF: Mudbound, Hillary Jordan; or, watch in real time as I lose all heart for reading about racism

The beginning: Hurrah, multiple points of view! (In retrospect, the multiple points of view is probably the reason I added this book to my TBR list in the first place.) Mudbound (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) opens with two brothers, Jamie and Henry McAllan, hastening to dig a grave for their father before the rains start again; while Henry’s wife, Laura, barely conceals her relief at the old man’s death. Then we jump back in time a few years, to the time when Laura and Henry met and married and moved to Mississippi to run a farm there. Laura hates it, and hates even worse that she has to live with her sexist, racist, interfering father-in-law. We also get point-of-view chapters from Henry and Jamie, as well as various members of a black sharecropper family, the Jacksons, who work the McAllan farm.

Hillary Jordan is a gifted writer. The opening few chapters of Mudbound, which take place after the main action of the book, hint at what’s to come without drawing attention to the cleverness of the foreshadowing. This is a trick many authors struggle to accomplish. Jordan does it, I think, by not seeming to care what the reader knows or doesn’t know about the events of the book. Here’s an excerpt from Laura McAllan’s first point-of-view chapter:

But I must start at the beginning, if I can find it. Beginnings are elusive things. Just when you think you have hold of one, you look back and see another, earlier beginning, and an earlier one before that…


[M]y father-in-law was murdered because I was born plain rather than pretty. That’s one possible beginning. There are others: Because Henry saved Jamie from drowning in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Because Pappy sold the land that should have been Henry’s. Because Jamie flew too many bombing missions in the war. Because a Negro named Ronsel Jackson shone too brightly. Because a man neglected his wife, and a father betrayed his son, and a mother exacted her revenge. I suppose the beginning depends on who’s telling the story. No doubt the others would start somewhere different, but they’d still wind up at the same place in the end.

That is a well-written and economical way of telling you, Expect tragedy. Okay, Hillary Jordan! I am duly primed for tragedy!

Cover report: I don’t love either one. I guess I will go with the American cover, because it’s a smidge less generic? I don’t know. I don’t feel happy about it.

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip it if you don’t want to know): This is not my first rodeo. Good outcomes are unlikely in books about sharecropping and racism in 1946 Mississippi. Duly, the end of the book indicates that the the Jacksons have packed up everything to leave the town, following some kind of racism-related violent thing that has befallen their oldest son. It also appears that Jamie killed his father. I paged backward to find out why and really really wish I had not, because the murder motive is tied to what happened to the Jacksons’ son, and it’s much horrible than I was imagining. If I had not been reading this book for book club, I’m not sure I’d have finished it. I do not have the stomach for this kind of ugliness.

The whole: Mea culpa, friends. I couldn’t finish this book, even though it was a book for work book club. The ending was brutal, and when I got far enough into the book to observe that it was going to be brutal all the way through, and culminate with the horrible thing I read about at the end, I just couldn’t take it. This:

[Ronsel, a black World War II veteran] tried to step around them, but Orris moved to stand in his way. “Well, looky here. A jig in uniform.”


Ronsel’s body went very still, and his eyes locked with Orris’s. But then he dropped his gaze and said, “Sorry, suh. I wasn’t paying attention.”

Y’all, I don’t know, it has been a rough month and maybe I am emotionally fragile, but when Henry McAllan went to the Jackson’s house later, and made Ronsel apologize to the men who called him “boy” after he fought for his country, and made him leave the store through the back door, I don’t know. I couldn’t handle it.

  • No judgment here. Sometimes I am just not up for having the heart ripped out of my chest and sliced and diced. Still, the initial quote you offered is beautiful and evocative and makes me wish I had the heart to read this.

    • Gin Jenny

      I know, I just couldn’t. She made Ronsel Jackson such a vivid character, and I couldn’t handle reading more and more about him being humiliated and brutalized. Maybe I will read one of her other books.

  • I loved Mudbound, but I loved it for its emotional power and the way it unflinchingly shows the horror of racism. I can see why it would be too much for some, but it is one of those important book that shows how horrible human society can be. Hope you find a happier book to read next!

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes, absolutely, I agree — it’s an antidote for something like The Help, that presents a much rosier picture of white people in that era. But I admit I can’t usually handle this much brutality in fiction. If I’m going to be reading about the horror of racism, I’d rather read nonfiction. Not sure why.

  • It was pretty brutal, but the ending chapter puts a hopeful spin on the really ugly racist thing that happened to Ronsel. I thought Jordan was super brave for confronting racism in the way that she did rather than painting a portrait of “the great white hope” during this time period. Those great white hope novels are a crock.

    • Gin Jenny

      Boy they SURE ARE. Yes, I absolutely agree. I love that Jordan wrote it this way — one reason I couldn’t finish it is that the point-of-view white characters have all, inevitably, been influenced by the racist society they live in, and it was hard for me to spend time inside the heads of the more racist ones. It made me feel really yucky.

  • Hm. This one had already made it onto my TBR; I don’t think I realized before how much violence and racism it contained- or perhaps I didn’t read too closely the prior reviews. I will have to rethink it now.

    • Gin Jenny

      If it makes a difference to you, it’s beautifully written. Just gorgeous. But the racism is very, very ugly, and you are inhabiting the minds of the characters who perpetrate it.

      • Yes, that does make a difference to me. Although I couldn’t get through Lolita! I guess I’ll just have to give it a try, and see what I think. I don’t mind anymore putting aside books that aren’t working for me. But I’m definitely not in the mood for that kind of read right now!

  • The ugliness of this time in American history is one of the reasons why I haven’t read it yet. I will one day.

    • Gin Jenny

      Do you have an easier time reading nonfiction about this time in American history? I do, and I can’t figure out why.

  • Haven’t tried this one but it sounds like I might have bailed too.

    I love some pretty devastating books, but I’m usually not up for books that are all devastating all the way through.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yeah, you know, I can never really predict when a devastating book is going to be too much for me. The Book Thief was completely devastating, but I suppose because the characters weren’t morally compromised in the same way the Mudbound folks are, it didn’t get to me as much? Maybe that’s why?

  • I hate it when this happens. 🙁

    • Gin Jenny

      Me too! I feel like such a failure! :p

  • Did you try Southern Cross the Dog? I’m not sure why the Great Flood of 1927 is so popular in literature all of a sudden, but Bill Cheng writes in a similar world with a slightly lighter outlook on humanity. Slightly.

    • Gin Jenny

      I….do not do well with Great Flood of 1927 stories. I have a thing about rushing water. I had to shut my eyes when the Ents flooded Isengard in The Two Towers. :p

  • aartichapati

    Oh, gosh. This is like Someone Knows My Name, though that book had hope to balance out the horror. Try it!

    I think I will have to give myself some time away from horrible racism before tackling this one.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes, you know, sometimes I just get terribly exhausted with all the ugliness in the world.

  • I think books like this one make a compelling argument for reading the end.

    • Gin Jenny

      Really? I think it sort of makes the opposite argument — that I shouldn’t have read the end because it stopped me from reading the middle. I think something like Revolutionary Road is a better argument for me, where I was a little bored with the beginning, and then reading the end gave the book momentum, and I ended up loving it.

  • I’m in two minds whether or not to read this, on the one hand it sounds wonderfully well written, on the other hand I don’t need to pain right now I think this story will bring me.

    • Gin Jenny

      It really is beautifully written. Maybe read it some day when you have a lot of mental/emotional energy.

  • Aonghus Fallon

    I remember watching ‘No Country for Old Men’ – and no, I never read the book, although I enjoyed ‘Blood Meridian’ – and thinking how a certain kind of book or film, no matter how well written, well-acted, well-shot etc, is spoiled by a certain grim sense of inevitability. I expect an author to surprise me. If the story is a tragedy, I still hope it won’t turn out the way I expect – that is, I expect the nature of the tragedy to be unexpected. I was going to suggest this might have been why you had a problem with this particular book, only I just remembered you always read the end before you read the middle. Still……

    • Gin Jenny

      I think tragedy is best when it’s both inevitable and almost, almost, almost averted, like in Romeo and Juliet. Or actually, better example, West Side Story. There are so many moments when that story could have gone another way, and at the same time you feel it always had to end the way it ended.

  • Of course, it will be ugly and tragic. And yet still. Plenty of people keep tragedy and ugliness alive. THAT is what is so sadly wrong. right? or am I wrong? I’m plenty wrong about stuff.
    I can’t tell which cover is which – do you always put the US one before the UK? Just curious…. Thanks, too, btw.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes, that is what’s so sadly wrong. And I guess I sometimes can’t handle reading about the ugliness that is still so present in our society today.

      Yes, I always put the US cover before the UK one. I thought I had floaty captions on them that say “American cover” and “British cover” but evidently I did not do that correctly. I will fix it in future.

  • I saw this title more than a few times over the past few weeks – once at a book sale, another time at the library, then at a few blogs. Not sure why, but I have been ignoring it each time. It’s still on my list, but after reading your review, I doubt I’m in mood for it.