Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan

 

Winner of the Bellwether Prize, awarded to a first literary novel that promotes social justice.

Two men return to the Jim Crow world of the Mississippi Delta from World War II; one is black, one is white. Both have lived a life far freer than the one they now face. Ronsel Jackson is the son of sharecroppers, and Jamie McAllan is the brother of the owner of Mudbound, the cotton farm that ties the two men and their families together.

It’s a miserable place, the owner’s house little more than a shack, the people mired both in mud and a system of rules that keeps everybody—blacks, whites, men, women— in their narrowly defined space. Ronstel’s father works a grueling schedule to maintain his status as a tenant farmer, which means he gets half of the crops he and his family harvests. When a storm kills his mule, he can no longer keep up and faces returning to sharecropper status, meaning he gets only 25 percent. So a mule is the difference between making a living wage and being forever indentured.

Ronstel’s mother Florence is a midwife who saves the lives of the farm owner\’s daughters and helps the wife, Laura McAllan, turn her hovel into something of a home.  Yet, her thanks is to be treated as less than, because she is black.

The nonchalant racism of the farm’s owners is chilling. Laura notes that, while she appreciates Florence’s help, she is careful not to let the help cross the invisible line between black and white. She uses Florence’s first name, but Florence must call her “Miz McAllan.” And Florence and her daughter Lilly can’t even use the family’s outside toilet—they have to use the woods behind it. (Hard to see that as anything but an improvement, but rules are rules.)

Laura’s husband Henry is so in love with his land that he ignores the real dangers in his family, primarily those caused by his father, Pappy, who is evil incarnate and the catalyst for the disastrous events that end the novel.

Author Hillary Jordan writes each chapter in the voice of one of the main characters, giving insight into their hopes, fears, and justifications. She does not let Pappy speak, perhaps because he does not survive—which we learn in the first chapter, so no spoiler there. It would have been a challenge to hear such a nasty character explain himself, though. Such is the nature of his personality, however, that we all enjoyed the book a bit more knowing he would not survive.

—Pat Prijatel

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

A “plainsong” is a simple, unadorned melody, a Christian worship song without instruments, sung in unity. And it’s the fitting title of Kent Haruf’s lyrical novel about mythical Holt, Colorado, its flawed citizens and the angels that help save those most in need, especially the children.

Plainsong, the book, is truly a plainsong, unadorned and melodic. It is a gentle, calm story of human failings and redemption that matches its setting: the quiet plains of windswept northeastern Colorado. The cast of characters includes Maggie Jones, the catalyst who connects lost souls with their saviors; Tom Guthrie and his sons Ike and Bobby, whose mother is not up to the challenge of day-to-day parenting and moves to Denver, leaving the boys to find mothering where they can; the McPheron brothers, bachelor farmers who fill a hole in their lives by informally adopting Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenage whose mother locks her out of the house; and a troublemaking high school student and his obnoxious parents.

At times, I felt like hugging this book because of the goodness of some of its characters, its authenticity and subtle humor.

Haruf is from my hometown of Pueblo, Colorado. Every year when we drive to our Colorado cabin, we pass Yuma, Colorado, which is the model for Holt. And Haruf ended up building a home in Salida, Colorado, one of my favorite places. So this novel had special connections for me. Sharelle Moranville has written about her admiration for Haruf. But we all enjoyed the book and look forward to reading more by Haruf, especially Eventide, which follows the characters five years later.

In a final interview just days before he died in November, 2014, Haruf said, “I want to think that I have written as close to the bone as I could.” He did indeed.

— Patricia Prijatel

Little Wolves, by Thomas Maltman

Is there actually a mountain on the eastern Minnesota prairie? Did a young man who lived near it intend to commit a murder? Did he intend to kill himself? Did he actually kill himself? Was the man he murdered saint or sinner? How and why did the young priest’s wife end up reliving her mother’s last act?

We wrestled with these and a batch of other questions as we discussed this intriguing book, and were mixed in our reactions to it. The myths of early Anglo-Saxon literature fit in nicely—the coyote (Maltman calls them “little wolves”) who rescued the human baby, the man who turns into a wolf—and become intertwined with the reality of lost souls in the tiny prairie town, where people still blame dark deeds on the ghosts of the Native American who settled here first.

But some of the themes work, some don’t.

Our overriding question was: Where have all the editors gone? This is not the first time we asked this question—many of the books we have read have suffered from the need of an impartial expert to cut unnecessary details and story lines, to help the writer focus.

This could have been a brilliant book—and with more time from an editor, it should have been. Much of the writing is beautiful and the imagery is elegant.  It was an enjoyable read, but not completely satisfying afterward.  Too many themes were only loosely resolved; others were  introduced then dropped, leaving us to wonder what to make of it all. Likewise, some of the characters were weakly drawn, including the teenager Seth, who is at the center of things; the newly minted priest Logan, who could have been fascinating with just a bit more focus; and Clara, who is looking for her own roots by studying ancient literature.

The setting was wonderfully imagined and Maltman makes the community itself a central character, which gives the book much of its strength. The father-son bonding throughout was compelling, especially in the ending, which was far lovelier than we could have expected.

We recommend the book, despite the above reservations, and would love to hear others’ reactions to it.

—Patricia Prijatel