Mudbound is a small story set in Mississippi in the 1940's, but with large themes and a far reaching impact. As it's set in Mississippi, it's fairly easy to predict it deals with social injustice and racism but it does it so very well, it's easy to forget that all these stories have been told before in one form or another. But that really doesn't matter, as for what is quite a short book, it manages to deal with racism, sibling tension, marital stress and the effects of WWII on the men that returned, all within one story, and a few characters.
The first part of the book deals with the blossoming relationship between Henry and Laura, their lives and their families, and eventually their marriage and relatively happy life in Memphis. Although the ominous tone of the book is present in this section, it is less apparent here. It is when Henry decides to give up his job and move his family out to a ramshackle farm on the delta that the story takes the downward turn that is prevalent at the very start of the story. The culture shock of moving from civilised Memphis to a farm with no comforts at all is hard on Laura, and a lot of the story is concerned with her unhappiness at this, but also her obedience to her husband (mostly), although she does have moments of defiance, and the insights she gains, and therefore that we gain also, into the different ways the couple see their lives.
The story is told through alternating narratives, from Henry and Jamie, the two brothers, Laura, Henry's wife, and Hap and Florence a coloured couple who are tenants on Henry's farm, and Ronsel, their eldest son. The first few pages set the tone for the rest of the book. The Mcallan brothers are burying their father, who we are told has been murdered, and that he is despised by all his family. During Laura's first chapter she says
"My 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 one too many bombing missions during the war. Because a negro name Ronsel Jackson shone too brightly. Because a man neglected his wife, and a father betrayed his son, and a mother exacted vengeance. I suppose the beginning depends on who is telling the story. No doubt others would start somewhere different, but they'd still wind up at the same place in the end."
This short passage says so much about the story I had to include it, as well as the fact that it's just lovely writing, and a good example of the tone of the book. The inevitability of what will happen is made clear from the start of the book and the ominous tone continues and the tension builds as the story continues. The different characters mentioned all get their turn to speak, and between them they all manage to tell the complete story. Henry and Jamie speak about what is happening to them, as do the Jackson family, although these points of view are very opposed to each other and it is Laura's chapters that tie the whole thing together and Laura who fills in the blanks that the other characters don't say.
The opposition of viewpoint between the Mcallans and Jacksons is what makes this story. We see the same events from the racist, superior viewpoint of mainly Henry Mcallan, but also Jamie to a lesser extent, and the accepting, reluctantly subservient view from the Jacksons, mainly Florence. Her chapters are enlightening, showing how they just get on with their lives and keep their heads down, despite the injustice of the way they are treated. This all changes with the return of Ronsel from the war however, where he has been treated equally, and struggles to settle to life as a coloured person in Mississippi. Jamie, also just returned from Europe, becomes friendly with Ronsel and this friendship angers his extremely bigoted and racist father, leading to the horrific but inevitable conclusion.
Surprisingly, for the subject matter, I did feel sympathy for all the characters in the story, probably because because they all had a distinct voice, I could see why they acted the way they did, and what led them to have their faults and viewpoints. The exception to this would be pappy, the murdered father, but he never got to speak, his actions were only told through other people, but still I don't think I could have felt any sympathy or empathy with him under any circumstances. The Mcallans did move on from the horrific events on the farm quickly, and this jolted me, but that this sort of social injustice was rife is the whole point of the story.
I could waffle on for ages about this book, but I think I'll stop now because if I say any more I might give something away, and then there would be no need to read it, and I really think you should read this book. It's brilliant. And anyone that doesn't put their hand to their mouth at the conclusion is just heartless and has no soul!