This compact, powerful novel portrays, at heart, an intimate family drama played out on the rural farm of Henry McAllan, a World War I vet who transplants his Tennessee wife and their two children in a harsh, demanding landscape, the farm cut off for days from the main road after violent storms. Henry’s cantankerous father is the catalyst for this drama, his carping tongue making Laura’s tasks ever more difficult, her life become an endless cycle of drudgery. The novel’s perfectly pitched characters set the stage for a tragic denouement.
Henry is “landsick”, coveting and nurturing his farm as if it is a woman - hard-working, no frills, the kind of man who uses the date the Confederate Army crushed the Union in the Battle of Richmond as the combination for his lockbox. Laura, a near-spinster when Henry marries her at thirty-one, is plain and unassuming, but her mild demeanor hides a passionate heart: “This was the core of my existence; this yawning emptiness, scantily clad in rage.”
From their first home in Tennessee, Laura clings to her husband and small daughters, forced to live, in the 1940s, in a three-room shack without running water or electricity. Henry’s father, Pappy, is evil, cruel and mean-spirited; residing with them on the farm, the old man blights every day Laura endures in his company. Jamie, Henry’s younger brother by twenty years, is the joy in his older brother’s world, bright-spirited, creative, hating the fact that his red hair marks him as his father’s son. After World War II, Jamie returns to the McAllan’s with “a hole in his soul.”
Florence is the wife of Hap Jackson, her family share tenants on Henry’s property. A local midwife, the intimidating, no-nonsense woman becomes a touchstone for the overwhelmed, city-bred Laura. Sensible and proud, Florence defines the strength of Mississippi blacks, her compassion obscured behind farm life practicalities. One of the decorated black troops fighting in World War II under General Patton, Hap and Florence’s son, Ronsel, returns to Mississippi to help his struggling parents, the pride he feels as a soldier shining in his eyes, an affront to every white man.
Henry and Laura are creatures of their time, as readily influenced by “common knowledge” as anyone, even when their experiences prove otherwise. As outrageous and outspoken as the prejudices in the South at that time, Mudbound highlights the scope of racial intolerance and the twisted fruits of its poison, the belief that blacks are a lower life form, incapable of deep thought, lazy, dirty; Jews hardly fare better, believed untrustworthy and venal.
While not the most subtle novel on racial issues, this kind of hard-hitting fiction is important in framing the argument for change; our history in this country is rife with such examples. On this farm, only a little tinder is required to set the whole place ablaze, a howling vortex of hatred unleashed, a tragedy long in the making: “When he is best, he is a little worse than a man; and when he is worst, he is little better than a beast.”