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Racism and Family Secrets in 'Mudbound'

Mar 14, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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Hillary Jordan's first novel, Mudbound, is a story of racism and well-kept secrets. Set on a desolate farm in the Mississippi Delta at the end of World War II, the novel explores the complex relations between two families: the owners of the land, and the sharecroppers who live and work on it.

The novel earned Jordan the Bellwether Prize for fiction, an award founded by author Barbara Kingsolver to promote literature of social responsibility. The cash prize and publishing contract is awarded bi-annually to an unpublished author.

Kingsolver says Mudbound is a beautifully written novel that examines the roots of racism through the distinct voices of its characters.

"I love that you understand everybody, even though everyone isn't right, and in the long run some people are very wrong," she says. "But you begin by feeling their own perspective, and you have some sympathy for every character."

Jordan says Mudbound was inspired by her mother's family stories of the year they spent on an isolated farm without running water or electricity. Eventually, it grew into a larger story with darker themes. But the first character she wrote about, Laura, was based on her own grandmother.

"I started out writing what I thought was going to be a short story in the voice of Laura," Jordan says, "and as the story grew, I just found myself wanting to hear from other people. As the story got larger, as it embraced these other themes, these larger themes about war and about Jim Crow, I wanted to hear from those people."

There is no omniscient narrator in this story. Instead, it is told from the perspective of six characters — black and white, male and female. Finding the voices and making them sound authentic was difficult, Jordan says.

"I had a number of well-meaning friends say things to me like, 'even Faulkner did not write about black people in the first person,'" she says. "But ultimately I just decided that it was so important to let my black characters address the ugliness of Jim Crow themselves, in their own voices."

The stories Jordan heard about the family farm when she was growing up were mostly charming and funny. It was only in researching the book that she came to understand they were also stories of survival — and that the lessons to be learned about the consequences of racism deserve to be told again and again.

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