Book Clubbing MUDBOUND



Please Note: Spoilers from this point forward.
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I posted this about a year ago, when I first returned to blogging. It's the letter I wrote to Hillary Jordan after I finished her novel, and it seems as good a place as any to start:


Dear Ms. Jordan: 
I am, of course, late to the game with Mudbound, having just finished it a few weeks ago, even though it was recommended to me much earlier. I think it was the way my friend said, "I loved it, but there were parts that were hard to read." Lots of books have parts that are hard to read; I knew she meant something qualitatively different with your book.
Your writing is beautiful and your story is compelling. But when I put the book down, I burst into tears and called my friend to tell her that she should have warned me. She said that she did. I said, no, what I meant is that she shouldn't have let me read it at all, because I didn't know how to live with it.
I am the white mother of an adopted African American son. I studied African American history at Smith College and Civil Rights at Georgetown Law School. I know something about the history of race in this country and still, you brought it home again and again and again. People need to read your book. I needed to read your book, even though I had so much to mourn when I finished.  Ronsel. I could mourn what happened to Ronsel for the rest of my life.
All I am trying to say is that your book moved me more than any book I can remember reading in a long time. And I just wanted to thank you for writing it.

All best,
Jennifer Zobair

Although I obviously have much to say about this book as a reader and a writer, I'd love to start with your initial reactions to the book. To the comments!

109 comments:

  1. I am sorry that I'm missing the discussion. It was one of the best books I've read in the last year.

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    1. Richard, the nice thing about the discussion being on the blog is that it will be here to read in the days and weeks to come, and the conversation does not have to be limited to today.

      Our thoughts are with you and your family. Take good care.

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    2. Hi Richard,
      Yes, please take care.

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  2. I was hooked in the first chapter of this book when the men uncovered the bones of a buried slave. That image was so powerful to me. Overall, I was really drawn into the story, particularly following Laura and her adjustment to this new life. That was very engaging. The last chapter of the book was truly beautiful as well.

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    1. I'm glad to hear you say that about the last chapter. I have seen criticism of it, calling it "preachy" or "weak" or just "unnecessary." This may not be the most sophisticated of responses, but because I was so emotionally scathed by the book--not just what happened to Ronsel, but what the first doctor did to Hap's leg, and the casual but brutal racism in the characters' thoughts and words--for me, the novel would have been an exercise in despair without it.

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    2. I absolutely agree. That last chapter got the perfect amount of hope into the book without making it seem artificial.

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    3. I loved the last chapter. Cried like a baby. It didn't come off as preachy, because it didn't feel forced. I believed in this character completely.

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    4. Me too, Sarah. On both the crying and the believing in the character completely.

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    5. I thought the last chapter was brilliant. I don't often cry in book, bit I did. Perfectly balanced. We don't know if Ronsel will endure, only that he has a small chance.

      And we know what kind of a man he is, we continue the narrative with all the emotions we still need to express.

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    6. Exactly, Richard. Although I hope that chance is just a little bit bigger.

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  3. What hooked me on this novel was the switching, first-person perspectives. Everyone had a voice. None was more important than any other (though we spend the most time with Laura, probably). They were all very much alone with their fears and desires, muted by others' fears and expectations. Islands in the mud. I empathized with all of them to varying degrees, even while I lamented their weaknesses.

    I think this is the heart of the book's brilliance. Empathy. Honesty. Understanding. Without those qualities, we're doomed to remain lost and broken and alienated. If we embrace them, we can rise from the muck like Ronsel.

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    1. The different points of view was very impressive. I approached the technique with skepticism, but Jordan convinced me throughout the book that she truly could get into the head of nearly all of the characters.

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    2. I read that the book was supposed to be published in conjunction with the Bellwether Prize, but that they wanted her to pare down the number of POV characters-to ONE. She didn't want to, and she was released from that portion of the prize, and then her agent had a tough time selling it. Imagine the guts it took to stick with the structure during all of that.

      Of course, it eventually sold to Algonquin, and became a huge bestseller. :)

      As far as empathy, it is interesting to note that she did not speak from Pappy's pov. Could we have benefited at all if she had spoken for Pappy? Is he the easiest to hate because she didn't?

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    3. That's really interesting, and good for her! The way I read it, the structure of the book didn't allow for Pappy's point of view because of the death. That was how I knew Ronsel wasn't going to die. I do think, though, that reading Pappy's point of view would have made me sympathize with him more, since that's how I responded to all of the other characters.

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    4. I suppose some might point to this as a weakness of the book. Is the reason we didn't hear from Pappy because he was the most obviously evil and without redemptive value? It would have been difficult to empathize with Pappy. Yet there WERE thousands, if not millions, of men like him in the South. Perhaps his voice deserved to be heard, if not to empathize with, then to understand why the mud was as thick as it was.

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    5. At first I found the book tough to hold on to because of the different POVs but I think it was when I finally felt acquainted with everyone it became easier to follow and it was engaging. I especially liked to see the differences in Laura's and Henry's perspective, not quite a "he said, she said" but almost. (I'm going to do several little comments if they are separate thoughts. I think it might be easier to keep track of.)

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    6. On Pappy, in the back of my version of the book there is a Q&A where Jordan addresses his lack of POV in the book. Originally he did have his own voice in the book which she later removed after recommendations from editors and readers.

      "Nine drafts ago, Pappy actually narrated his own funeral (the two scenes at the beginning and end of the book). And people -- namely my editor and Barbara Kingsolver, who read several drafts of Mudbound and gave me invaluable criticism -- just hated hearing from him first, or in fact, at all. Eventually I was persuaded to silence him."

      An excellent choice, in my opinion.

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    7. Thanks for posting that! I think that the novel would have had a different feel for me if it started with Pappy. It might have been too large of a hurdle to access the story.

      And? Keeping with the way I have totally personalized this narrative, there is something really satisfying about silencing him. You know he would hate that.

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    8. Good point. In a sense, Jordan cut out his tongue.

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    9. Yes, Sarah! I honestly never thought of the poetic justice of that until you said it.

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    10. Sarah, that's a really awesome observation!

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    11. Personally, I like the fact that Pappy wasn't in the book (for the exact reason everyone touched on), but it would have been an interesting exercise, from a writer's perspective, to see if she could write from his POV and manage to make him SYMPATHETIC in some way. Not so much for the book, because it's so good to hate him, but just to try a stretch like that to see if you could actually manage it.

      (One example I think of is the character of Jimmy Fisher in Steve's book The Feasts of Lesser Men who is completely slappable, but you end up rooting for him anyway.)

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    12. One thing Sarah's comment reminded me of... I'm not sure if this was how the characters were drawn or if was something Jordan intended, but one of the things I found uncomfortable were the walls between everyone. I was acutely aware of how unpleasant it must be for "the good wife" to suffer in silence. And for everyone to have to put up with a horrible father/grandfather. It's almost like they were moving around on a chess board... everyone in their own square and never overlapping.

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    13. Great image, Wendy. I found that stifling, too.

      It's unbearable not to be able to share yourself with others, openly and honestly. Especially with the people you love.

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  4. On the pov thing, I think we get "closest" to Laura in some ways, that she opens herself to us more in the narrative than the others. Everyone is broken in some ways, and seems to have walls. She seems the most upfront about her self-doubt and pain.

    I feel like she is supposed to be a sympathetic character, but I struggled with her.

    I did empathize with her plight on the farm and being married to Henry, who I could not stand. But in the end, I felt let down by her, too. She felt that she'd been in love with a "figment" in Jamie, because of his "weakness" and "darkness." And she resigns herself to Henry. For me, even broken, Jamie was by far the better man. I guess I thought there was something so shallow in her for only loving him when she thought he was larger than life.

    I also struggled with this line: "And while I'll always regret that I got my son at such a terrible cost to hers, I won't regret that I got him." To me, this was too casual a statement about what happened to Ronsel. Too selfish. Yes, of course, love your baby, but the pairing here of the two thoughts was tough for me to swallow.

    Did anyone else read Laura as unsympathetic?

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    1. What I found particularly distasteful about Laura was that she had a "problem" with the racism around her and yet she was no different. Less extreme, yes, but she still treated Florence in a horrible manner when she felt like she was "getting out of her place."

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    2. Yes. YES. Exactly. And maybe that sensibility is what allowed her to make what seemed to me like a rather blithe comment about Florence's son and hers.

      In truth, she stayed completely in character for me. I admire the author for that, for not making her so redeeming in the end. The characters were who they were, and it couldn't have been wiped away with some trite sentimentality at the end of the novel.

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    3. I admired that Jordan did this. Like Jennifer says, it was keeping with her character. To me, this is showing the strength of culture or nurturing and how that swallows up independent thought. It was believable to me.

      The casual aspect you're talking about was a problem for me. I felt that throughout the book. I think Jordan's intelligence and empathy would have allowed her to go far deeper, and this came out in moments.

      My two favorite sections of the book were on page 156 (of my copy) when Ronsel is talking about Resl: "The two of us had something in common. Her people were conquered and despised, just like mine were. And just like me, Resl was hungry to be treated like a human being."

      and on page 169 when Laura is talking about her children: "I wanted the fiercer, less complicated love, unsullied by judgment and comparisons to one's own self, that my sisters had for their sons, and my brothers for their daughters."

      Both of these moments, for me, showed a greater depth than in other parts of the book.

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    4. I liked Laura more in the beginning, but possibly because I felt so badly for her then. By the end, she had made her own choices and I couldn't fall back on that more basic, simplistic picture I had of her. Which is a testament to Jordan, I agree.

      Laura did end up using Florence for her own ends. When she identified with her, it was only as a mother and servant. But she wasn't about to rock the boat, and question her own moral assumptions about segregation and racism. She had a very narrow sphere of concern and influence.

      I liked how Jordan brought in Germany and the Nazis as a shadow to what was taking place in the South. Ronsel could identify with the Holocaust victims, but also couldn't help but see them as somehow inhuman at first. He was scared of them. Yet he and Resl carved out a borderless country. If just for a little while.

      I'd love to read a short story, or novel, just about that.

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    5. Yes. Those are two beautiful sections.

      Do you think Jordan didn't give the characters enough credit for depth, or do you think this was purposeful--to show the lack of depth and unwillingness to question one's own assumptions that allows bigotry to go unchecked?

      Stylistically, I loved the "I'll begin with that. With love." and the "I'll end with that. With love." I just disagree with what Laura considers love: "To give whatever you can while taking what you must." This is what the people in her life seem to have taught her, but it's not my definition.

      There is this moment (p. 241 of mine) where she seems to want and think she deserves more:

      "When Jamie left and I was emptied, I would be invisible again, just like I'd been before he came. I couldn't go back to being that dutiful unseen woman, the one who played her roles without realling inhabiting them. I wouldn't go back. no."

      But didn't she?

      That is closer to love, I think. Really seeing someone and cherishing that person for who he/she is. Not asking the person to hide or be quiet or something different.

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    6. Btw, I found the differences between Jamie and Henry very interesting.

      I definitely favored Jamie, in spite of his recklessness and weaknesses. He would never make a good husband, but I didn't consider Henry to be a good husband, either. A provider and hard worker--yes. Okay, he was reliable. But Laura was responding to the searching, open quality in Jamie. He saw her, if only briefly. Henry was never going to see anything truly and wholly but the land before him.

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    7. Ha, Jennifer. I see we agree. :)

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    8. This is all an assumption, but I'm thinking the novel form ended up limiting Jordan a bit, in terms of character depth. Jordan was capable of it, and she shows it in several places. I feel that she could have gone even deeper. And it's not a matter of changing what the characters know or feel, it's a matter of how that was expressed.

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    9. Davin, do you mean the multiple povs?

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    10. No, not the multiple povs, I mean the generic structure of a novel. That's my own interpretation of course. I think Jordan could have done more with more time and more space.

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    11. Sarah, yes on your analysis of Jamie and Henry.

      In some ways, to be fair, I think she settled for the good provider because she didn't seem to think she was worth being seen. Had her family not reinforced this with their ridiculous fawning over this one man who would save their daughter from spinsterhood?

      But also? There was something unattractive about Laura in this, too. I think she'd romanticized romance enough, if you will, that once she actually "saw" Jamie, she lost interest. Her decision to cleave to Henry in the end seems fairly self-interested and sterile.

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    12. Davin, for you, is this book more character or plot driven? There is, afterall, a very specific point they must all get to, and within a reasonable amount of time (read: pages).

      Or: Do these specific characters matter to the narrative--are they essential, do these events happen because of who these characters are--or are they fungible in the depiction of a racist Mississippi town?

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    13. That really hits on the point. I was more engaged in the beginning of the book because, I guess, it felt more organic to me. At the end, I did start to feel like everyone was being pushed a long to try to hit their plot mark. I really liked this book, but I felt that change as I was moving through it.

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    14. Her characters were well-drawn. If I had to pick the weakest character it would definitely be Henry.

      Davin, I'm curious on your last remark. Can you give an example of what you'd recommend to add layers and complexity? (Not putting you on the spot, I'm just wondering if you had a specific example in mind.)

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    15. Wendy, the experience for me was a matter of recognizing these glorious moments like the two I quoted. Those showed me that Jordan was capable of capturing a lot in very few words and in a deep way. Because I saw that talent in her, I guess I wanted more of it. I guess it would be a matter of little moments. Just off the top of my head, I feel like the scene with the neighbor shooting his cow or Ronsel getting the letter and photograph from Resl could have had more depth. It's not a matter of whether it was there or not. It was there. But my feeling is that Jordan was capable of making those moments infinite.

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    16. That's a great insight, Davin. The flow and structure of the novel were tight. It really ripped along. I was on vacation at the time and didn't want to put the book down. But perhaps a little depth was sacrificed for the bigger picture.

      I'd say more, but I have two fighting kids to deal with and can barely articulate more than "Stop that!" for now. Ugh.

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    1. She did! She was lovely and said she shared the letter with her editor. And spoke of a sequel of sorts that I will be VERY interested in.

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  6. When you are famous you can blurb her book. :)

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  7. We are going to have to talk about Ronsel. And Hap.

    These are the parts of the novel that wounded me, where I felt like I'd been privy to an unspeakable violence, like I'd somehow been made a party to it by watching, by not being able to stop it. And for knowing that while the book was fiction, the events for so many people were not. That's where my anger at the friend came from--I felt completely awash in this depravity. I took it in. And for a little while after finishing, it sort of consumed me.

    There is a line for me somewhere between the need to know about things-to really understand how bad something was, and simply things I can't read about. I try not to read anything with a violent rape scene. I'm not sure what my point is here--just that the Ronsel scene at the sawmill came pretty close to crossing that personal line of mine.

    And yet I still maintain that this is a critically important book to read, and that scene is part of it. That scene is where racism goes. It has no where else to go, eventually, left to its own devices, but there.

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    1. This touches on what I consider to be a book's value. Is it valuable for the world to have this book, or does it only spark powerful emotions in a non-beneficial way? I respond similarly to Light In August...have you ever read that book? For me, the violence here was justified and worthwhile. I felt like the motivation of the scene and the book was to help the world understand versus simply trying to shock.

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    2. I think these are wonderful points. I have not read the book Davin mentions, but I have often heard comments from older women who have said, "Young women do not appreciate where we were a few decades ago." (in relation to women's rights.)

      And I personally have never been exposed to the types of racial violence in the book, so it's all in my head on an intellectual level.

      Jordan does really well making it visceral, because we like the characters. I loved Ronsel's space he'd carved out in Europe where he was more free and open. And then to have to go back??

      When I watch documentaries about MLK and civil rights I think "how terrible", but it feels academic in some respects. I love that Jordan's book is a gut-punch and I would say a definite YES to Davin's speculation about value.

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    3. That's such a great way of putting it. And I agree. The scene was horrifying, but not for shock's sake.

      I kept thinking that every racist who doesn't think the history of slavery had any lasting impact needs to read this book and what happened to Ronsel and Hap with his leg. Truthfully, that scene was almost as horrifying to me. I was fairly shell-shocked after reading it. But both speak to things I am honestly not sure everyone understands. As bad as "sit in the back of the bus" was, there was much, much worse. There was torture. There was murder. There was what happened to Ronsel.

      I have not read Light in August. Should I?

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    4. Hap and his leg was a very interesting scene, wasn't it? He was so passive, a complete victim for his doctor. Ronsel approached his own problems more actively. He made more of a choice to face his enemy.

      I guess I don't know enough about your reading preferences to know if I should recommend Light In August. It's an emotionally challenging read and a very dark book that deals with racism and self-hatred. I'd say you should read it, but I can't say if you would want to.

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    5. I felt like that was generational. And because Ronsel had experienced something different and affirming in Europe. And let's face it--if you've fought and risked your life for your country--for these people--it's going to be much harder to take.

      Also, he had a good bit of Florence in him. :)

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  8. I was unable to 'hit it hard' as promised to join you in a rounded discussion of Mudbound. I'm a third of the way through, so I'll make one comment and retreat so I can finish without spoilers. :-) Although, I'm a little frightened to continue the read. I'm the wife of a man of varied talents and strengths who happens to be Black. And I'm the mother of two lovely biracial sweeties. I'm afraid my heart won't be able to take the blows.

    Like Wendy, I found it hard to make it through the heavy backstory start -- but became attached by the time characters began circling.

    In my opinion, these were stellar moments in the writing so far:

    Laura:

    These visions bloomed in my mind like exotic flowers, opulent and jewel-toned, undoing years of strict pruning of my desires.

    I practically throbbed with a desire to sew for him.

    Florence:

    "Only so long as he alive," I said. "For if the husband be dead the wife is loosed from his law. Says so in Romans."

    (Brilliant and funny veiled threat through the scriptural references between Hap and Florence!)

    Enjoy to discussion!

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    1. Oops! Enjoy the discussion! My five-year-old is a great preventative of quality editing. :-)

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    2. Thank you for stopping by, Shannon!

      I hope the discussion will continue after today to include everyone, and I hope you'll come back when you finish.

      I have wondered if part of why I was so hurt by this story is because I read it as the mother of an African American son. I'd love to talk to you when you finish either here or via email.

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    3. Shan, you should finish it. History is full of shameful events and, in my opinion, we have to keep viewing these to remind us to strive to be better.

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  9. Also, related to Shannon's comment and the pov discussion, in this novel Hillary Jordan writes in the pov of, and therefore speaks for, black sharecroppers. There is some debate in multicultural fiction about who can speak for whom, who gets to tell the story.

    I'm curious if anyone had any issues with Jordan writing as Florence or Hap or Ronsel.

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    1. As soon as I started to figure out what this book was about, I forced myself not to look in the back to see the picture of the author. I thought that was the fairest way to approach this. By the end of the book, I didn't have any issues with her writing as all of the characters. I bought it.

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    2. I don't see it as any different than a woman writing as a man or vice versa. Or a 20 year old writing from the POV of an old woman. Although objectively I suppose it could be more "hot buttony" because does a white person writing in a black "dialect" come off as racist like a "blackface" thing in theater? I don't know.

      But anyway, to me I just ignore it.

      And even when I see a man writing as a woman -- when I think he doesn't do it well I just think, "well, he's close. Good enough considering he's never lived his life as a woman."

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    3. Wendy, I agree that's it's not different for a man writing as a woman or any variation of that. I frame the question as a writer writing about who they know versus someone they don't necessarily know.

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  10. One of the things I think is interesting in this discussion is our various perspectives.

    Myself, I read this as white middle-aged woman from the South. I live an hour from the Klan capital of North America. I am frequently confronted in my job by people who are openly racist. They very blithely come to me (a Realtor) and say, "I want to move to this location because I have to get away from the Blacks." (Or they use the n-word.) Or they say, "Don't sell my house to the Blacks. I don't want to do that to my neighbors."

    I've handled it in various ways to ignoring it, to putting them off with stupid joking reminders like "we're all pink in the middle...", to expressing my discomfort or disagreement to downright straight "I will not work with you because you're a racist jackass. Get somebody else." I have the federal fair housing act legal jargon MEMORIZED. That is how frequently I have to state it.

    I live in a town that is mostly white Christian. I can probably tell you the name of every black person in the community because the town is small and they are few. Strangely, there is more dislike here of Mexicans than black people, probably because of the language barrier. The only reason the people from India are not discriminated against is because they own hotels or are doctors and have money.

    So, for me... reading Mudbound felt like living my heritage. I spent a lot of time thinking about how much has changed and yet, sometimes, how little has changed.

    I remember a man one time telling me how he had to get away from the blacks (and then explained in great detail why) and he said, "Don't get me wrong. I don't got nothin' against blacks. I've got a good friend who is black." (Stated as if he were a loyal and true pet that he was fond of.) And my poor brain was going... ?????????

    I am disgusted by the ignorance of a human being who will think a person with dark skin is inferior when it's just an appearance. But at the same time I'm sure I have made some disgusting judgements myself. We discriminate on gender, size, age. We like pretty girls and boys. We like fit people better than hefty people. Young people are so infinitely more capable of wonderfulness than my 73 year old mother (who could kick most anyone's ass any day of the week.)

    Take the "well-accepted" (for the time) violence out of the story and how much as changed?

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    1. To me, it would be cool to read more books from different perspectives or cultures, because I do think this personalized response is one of the coolest things about writing. To think that a book is a conversation is fascinating to me. Being from Southern California, I approached this from a less personal place. I've learned about this horrible violence, but I've never been close to it. Yes, I'm of course aware of my own discriminatory views and those of others around me.

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    2. Davin, I spent several years in So Cal and I was really surprised that there was a lot of tension (at the time) between caucasians and hispanics. I guess considering where I was coming from I thought there wouldn't be as much.

      My naivete is startling because I thought that would be diminished by crossing a southern border.

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    3. A comparison of Southern California and London has always stuck with me. I read an opinion piece years ago that both areas were culturally diverse, but in London all of the different cultures were actually mixed, while in Southern California, all of the cultures isolated themselves. On my commute home, I pass through Beverly Hills and go into Korea Town, followed by downtown with its skid row. People from all of these communities mix on the bus, and I've seen plenty of shouting matches and name calling and a few fights.

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    4. I agree. We bring ourselves to everything we read. I read this mostly as the mother of a 14-year-old African American. I read The Buddha in the Attic as a Muslim American who can identify with parallels to the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII. I read The Namesake as the wife of a South Asian man.

      I think I read most things as a feminist first, so I guess as a woman, but I am hugely shaped by having converted to a religion that many people quite openly despise, and b having a multi-ethnic family.

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  11. BIG SPOILER ALERT (in case anyone is trying to skim and avoid spoilers)

    I was gripped by the moment in the barn where Jamie was forced to make his choice for Ronsel. Which choice would be easier to live with for a lifetime? I think most of us would say for a man that Jamie made the "right" choice for Ronsel, but being that communication is so vital for us... is it any less painful?

    I don't know, but I was intrigued by the question.

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    1. Symbolically, that choice was huge. And I guess it was the "right" one, too. The other options were his scrotum or hands, I think?

      I don't know if I remember right (it's been awhile now), but it seemed to me Jamie had the option to take the bullet, if you will, for Ronsel. He could have died, rather than make that choice and become part of the assault. Now they probably would have attacked Ronsel, anyway, afterward. But I felt like Jordan was saying that, at heart, Jamie was a coward.

      Or maybe I'm remembering wrong. At any rate, it's an interesting question, Wendy. In a way, it fits into what Jamie, or any white person, could see as a future for Ronsel. He'd need his eyes and hands for sharecropping, his genitals to produce a family. The voice of a black man, even to someone more enlightened like Jamie, likely seemed the most expendable.

      As a side note: how do we feel about Jamie killing Pappy afterward? I mean, if anyone "deserved" to die, it was that old bastard. But for me, it meant that Jamie was also killing the last good part of himself. That softness inside of him. He'd surrendered to the darkness, taken an easy revenge, and lost his soul in the process.

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    2. Okay, this really tips my hand probably, but I see it more as reclaiming himself after years of subjugation. (All of you are so NICE. Who let me in here??)

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    3. I didn't see it that way simply because he was still so broken afterwards. And he was obviously drinking to forget.

      Also, I'm reflecting on all of this rationally, several weeks after I finished reading it. At the time, I did feel a sense of vindication. Because seriously--what a rat bastard.

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    4. I felt that, too, after finishing it. It's not like there was no satisfaction that Pappy was dead, that has killed, that he knew it was by Jamie's hands. (Would it have been worse, from his perspective, if it had been by Florence's hand? By a black woman or betrayed by his own flesh and blood, which would have infuriated him more?)

      It might be the lawyer in me--trained to know that no matter how egregious the crime, we have decided as society that we don't take justice into our own hands. But there was going to be no justice for Ronsel. The ones who did it were protected by the racist system that corupted even the authorities.

      So what then?

      What happens, today, when a murderer or a rapist or a child abuser gets off? What do the survivors or the victims do? Because this happens all of the time, for a variety of reasons even today, and one of those reasons is certainly racism.

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  12. One of my favorite moments...


    So it was that our father was laid to rest in a slave's grave, in a hurried, graceless ceremony presided over by an accusatory colored preacher, while the woman who meant to kill him looked on, stiff-backed and full of impotent rage that somebody else had beaten her to it.

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    1. That was just immensely satisfying.

      Of all the characters, Hap had the purest heart. But he knew how to pick a Bible verse, when push came to shove.

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    2. Did anyone wish Florence had killed him?

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    3. This is such a hard question. It evokes so many issues of justice and revenge and being broken and and consumed with hating right back.

      I think Sarah is right, above, when she says Jamie did away with the good part of himself--that he gave in to darkness. And Florence was good and ready to do the same. And who could blame her?

      So my first, emotional response is that I wish she had killed Pappy. But my more reflective response is that act would make her defined by hate, and I wouldn't want her to live with that. I want her to rage, to mourn, to never forget, to get her son the hell out of there and try to help him survive and do all the things to get to the ending referenced in the last chapter, "the ending we want, you and me both."

      For me, Florence needs to be defined by mother love and not Pappy hate to go forward.

      And Jamie's actions let her do that.

      But it sort of kills me a bit to be reasonable about it. After what we witnessed in the sawmill.

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    4. That's interesting. I give Florence more credit than Jamie. I feel like Florence would be less internally polluted by the murder than Jamie would be or was. It's not the act of the murder that can ruin them, but the internal effect of it. Maybe?

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    5. Davin, it is quite possible hat I am imputing my own weakness to Florence--how it would affect me--but she is a very strong, determined woman who seems very clear about her boundaries. So you may have a point.

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    1. There is that impulse in me, too. Don't get me wrong.

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    2. I finished. Sigh. I agree with Wendy. Sometimes a mother's love requires a deadly fierceness. Vera took the measures necessary to protect and avenge her kids, and ended up more peaceful, even sane. Florence never had the chance to do the same for Ronsel. Her bitterness remained-- we never know if it was resolved.

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  14. I just want to take a minute to say that I love this discussion--and that it a pleasure to (finally!) be talking about this book with such thoughtful people.

    I wasn't ready to talk about it back when I first read. So actually this timing, and a little distance, was perfect.

    I know people read because I asked them to, and I know how many things compete for our time, not the least of which is all of the books we have on our to-be-read lists. So I am truly touched and honored that everyone read, those who were able to come today and those who were not, but who I hope can weigh in in the coming days, or whenever they want.

    Also, I would love to return the favor. If anyone else has a book that affected them similarly or that they just love or would like to discuss, I will happily commit to reading it and discussing, either on your blog or this blog or medium of your choosing.

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    1. As a writing community, I also think it's really helpful to be able to have a group of books that we have all read together. They can serve as reference points for our own writing as we talk about what works and what doesn't. So, I'm also up for something more. Jennifer, would you want to host others? I'm happy to do it at my place too.

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    2. Davin, I am happy to have it here or at your place. It might be fun to move it around, but we certainly don't have to.

      I agree that there is a lot to be gained by having books in common to discuss. I liked this because part of it was just reaction to the story, and part of it was style and structure and execution.

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    3. I like all the levels of the discussion, but it's particularly nice to be able to talk about the craft of writing as well.

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  15. Swooping in late. Hoping this will go on into tomorrow so I can think of something intelligent to say that hasn't been said. Great discussion so far. Wish there was a way to 'like' the comments. :-)

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    1. Of course, Cat! We can talk as long as people want. And don't worry about what's been said--it's a lot of comments to read if you're just coming into it. I'd just love to hear what you thought of the book. I don't mind at all if it has been said by someone else.

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  16. Wow. Ok. I guess I'll just work with some of my cluttered thoughts here and we'll see if any sense can be made of them.

    I was drawn in from the very beginning by Jordan's writing style. I loved the changing POV and as a writing tool, I think it works really well. I think it would be fun to experiment with this style. But I also loved her sentences and descriptions and the way she strung all her words together, managing to get into a unique voice with each character, yet maintain a continuity of time and place. The fact that there was a character named Pappy who I could probably point to as my own Pappy's evil twin, drew me in as well. I'm glad my Pappy isn't him though. That would truly be horrible. But I digress... I'm a self-centered reader, I confess — I need to relate to the characters on a very deep level for a book to maintain my interest.

    Laura: I saw her as someone who would never be satisfied regardless of the circumstances. I could actually relate to her in that her general level of dissatisfaction seemed to stem from magical thinking. I mean, Henri was kind of her savior from certain Old Maidhood, her prince on a steed. In those days that was a big deal. She had her own tongue cut in a way, by societal role norms, as she struggled with feelings that in a couple of decades helped lead to the Women's Liberation movement. I found all those repressed feelings of hers to be interesting.

    "That was the difference between men and women, I thought: Men take for themselves the things they want, while women wait to be given them." This was Laura's thinking just before she kissed Jamie. It was almost a defiant "screw you" to all she had repressed until that moment. She wanted Jamie, she had submitted to all this crap from Henri's agenda without any thought to her own feelings about her own life, she submitted to his sexual desires as if it was her duty, never even having a headache! (So does this mean she had a legitimate excuse?) Her so called feelings for Jamie were probably as simple as a 'grass is always greener' scenario, which is why she lost her feelings when reality set in.

    Oh, and I hated her interactions with Florence. What pretentious arrogance people carried/carry. Now Laura would be laughed at for her superiority stance. And yet it's still totally there and permeating society on so many levels. Just more hidden away in the shadows now, and far more dangerous. How are we going to tear down this wall between ourselves and "the other"?

    Ok. There's a start.

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    1. This is a wonderful, beautiful start, Cat. It's much more than start!

      I agree about her lyrical language. Especially Laura's chapters. I thought the prose there was beautiful and evocative and stylish. It was a true, true pleasure to read, and I think she captured the various other character's voices extremely well.

      I love this idea that Laura suffered from "magical thinking." With Henry and with Jamie. What is interesting, though, is that even as she suffered from the sexism of the time, she did sort of follow her description of love--taking what she needed from both men, too, and at least with Jamie in a pretty selfish way.

      So many of our problems would be solved if we could tear down the wall between ourselves and "the other." This is exactly why I think we need literature like this, that people need to read all kinds of literature from all different points of view. This is the case for multicultural literature.

      It is so much harder to hate someone if you know him.

      Thank you, Cat, for reading and sharing.

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    2. Wonderful stuff, Cat.

      I certainly agree there was magical thinking with Laura, as far as Jamie was concerned. Plus, she was just immensely attracted to him. Who wouldn't want to be rescued from that pit and marriage, or retreat into fantasy? So she placed Jamie on a pedestal. As much for herself as for him. She needed something to believe in.

      At heart, though, I really do feel like Laura was more of a pragmatist than an idealist. I think the extreme circumstances of living on that farm made her act in a way she wouldn't have otherwise. Whether those circumstances made her act more like her authentic self, or whether they made her betray her own principles, is somewhat up in the air for me.

      I guess it boils down to how she felt about her betrayal afterward. She didn't seem ashamed. She was proud to have Jamie's baby. But in a way, what she ended up with--what she "took" for herself--still very much conformed to the gender-specific notions of the day.

      She got a house and another child. In no way was she a trailblazer like Ronsel.

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    3. I love the line you quoted about the difference between men and women. There was a lot of waiting for Laura -- being the old maid and then continuing on to accept less than what she thought was promised. There was a LOT of powerlessness in the novel and those were uncomfortable moments for me. I wanted to say "DO SOMETHING!" (Laura with her situation and Hap with his leg are two of the main things.) There were a lot infuriating moments. :)

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    4. Good point Wendy. Powerlessness is hard to watch for me too. And just waiting to accept your fate is particularly grueling. There was a lot of that in Mudbound...

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    5. The scene with Hap didn't frustrate me in the same ways. I felt like sometimes when you live something you adjust to it--he had learned what to do to survive in Mississippi, and he had internalized it so deeply. There were rules to his world and had figured them out and he followed them. To survive. To provide for his family. To be a man in the only way he was allowed to be one. I felt his powerlessness there so vividly, but I guess I didn't expect him to fight back. It broke my heart so completely to see how they had broken him, but I knew they had broken him.

      It was the same thing when Henry would come to talk to him about Ronsel.

      The thing is, you can compel behavior through oppression, but the spirit goes on. And in that sense, Hap' choice of scripture at the end was so very Hap.

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    6. That's an excellent description of Laura, Catvibe. I didn't quite put words to her like that, but now that you have, I see it a lot more clearly.

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  17. She was definitely not a trailblazer like Ronsel! :-) His struggles take the cake in this book. But they were both victims of their time and place, but at such a different kind of level. I suppose all the characters were really. I think both the women's liberation movement undercurrents and the civil rights undercurrents that led to the future clashes and activism in the 60s were well represented in the characters here. I had to love Florence for her own 'women's liberation' within the family domestic type oppression of women of color. She wasn't the kind of woman to tolerate crap from a man, and luckily she had Hap who didn't give her that kind of crap. Just thinking of Ceely in A Color Purple as a woman who was the opposite of Florence in that regard. I loved Florence's strength.

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  18. When I read Mudbound, it made me think a great deal about civil rights. How far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.

    First, understand that I’m speaking to you from an imperfect place. I live just a few miles from the predominantly African-Canadian community of Preston. Last summer, I worked the Canadian census, and enumerated much of Preston over the course of a month. By every measure, the community has been marginalized. The roads are slow to be paved. Electricity didn’t arrive until the 1960s. Garbage collection looks haphazard. Community Services are thin on the ground. You won’t find a grocery store within 10 miles.

    But, for the most part, my time there was a joy. I was the only white face, walking around with my clipboard and credentials, talking to everyone. I could tell a dozen or more truly amusing stories. And a few threatening ones. With instructor-level training in karate, it takes a hell of a lot to scare me, and I was pretty terrified walking away from several threatening guys.

    So I see racism in Nova Scotia by the truckload. I see people stopped by the cops for driving while black. Or being asked for a second piece of ID at the bank.

    And yet, imagine how frustrated I am when I learn that people suggest that African-Canadians have a much better time of it than African-Americans. It's much, much easier here.

    I’ve heard professional athletes mention it frequently. And I’ve heard authors speak to it, too.

    A few months ago, Malcolm Gladwell was interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel on Writers and Company (best podcast on books in the world). He was so bloody funny as he explained how his perception of race relations changed when he started writing professionally.

    Why?

    Because he moved to the United States. In Canada, race wasn’t much of an issue for him, either as a child in Elmira, Ontario, or in university in Toronto. But within months of moving to the US, to work at The Washington Post, his life changed dramatically. Cops frequently looked him over as walked down the street. He started getting speeding tickets. He felt eyes on him everywhere. He was almost arrested once by two white cops even though an African-American cop on the scene had cleared him.

    If he had been writing about the deep south, I wouldn’t have been so surprised. But this was DC, for f*ck sake.

    Even though I heard stories like this from others, it still shocks me.

    Not surprisingly, Gladwell has very strong opinions on race relations, and I love him for it. For one, he can’t believe that the US had the audacity to lead the charge against apartheid just a few years after the civil rights movement. And during a time when most African Americans are still subjected to systemic (and often overt) racism.

    I don’t know how people cope. I see the struggles in my community, and I can’t image how much more difficult it must be for American kids.

    And it breaks my heart.

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    1. Richard, your journalism training shows itself, even when you just comment on a blog. This is so well put.

      I think a lot depends on where you are. And I am not saying the north is necessarily better than the south in America. Not at all. We live in a suburb of a large city, and I don't think my son has experienced a great deal of racism. Unfortunately, where I think he has, it has been from teachers. But I don't sense it from other kids or their parents. We live in a pretty diverse town with a relatively high Asian/South Asian population, and I'm sure that helps.

      But I worry. And when the whole hoodie thing came up in the Treyvon Martin case, it did stop me cold. My son wears hoodies all the time. All of the kids do. But I can't pretend we didn't sit down and talk to him about how to deal with the police if he was ever stopped by them for something. Borrowing in part from Toure's heartbreaking piece in Time Magazine after the shooting.

      It's a wretched conversation to have to have with your child.

      I don't know why progress along race/ethnicity is so slow. That people can be motivated to hate just by the color of someone's skin--if you really stop and think about it, it is so incredibly stupid. I mean seriously. There is no other word for it. It is stupid. And they should be ashamed and embarrassed of how stupid they are.

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  19. The disgusting thoughts and acts of hatred portrayed in Mudbound are so recent-- I'm continually struck by this as I listen to my husband's recollections of growing up in rural East Texas. He attended a segregated school! I'm sickened that the same blood flowing through my husband and children was deemed worthless, expendable, inhuman. I am an angry mother!

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    1. Shannon, I think you and I reacted to this book very similarly, and as I said to Davin, I wouldn't hvae been able to discuss it right when I finsihed. It was too emotional for me. I can't say I know exactly what you are feeling, but I do want to say that I can relate to that anger, completely.

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  20. Interesting to read your comments coming from the viewpoint of a mother of an African American child Jenn, this must have been extremely personal to you from right off the bat.

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    1. I am sure that factored in, Cat. Everything bad you can imagine is so much worse if you imagine it as a mother.

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  21. I'm so woefully behind on this discussion but it was wonderful just to read through everyone's thoughtful comments. I thoought Jordan handles the juggling of multiple POVs extremely well and can't imagine how vastly different the book would have been told in a single one. I think it was important to hear them, to be in their different heads through all this. I do appreciate, though, that Pappy's voice was excluded...especially now that I know his POV was in previous drafts. There was such ugliness and violence in the book as it was that I don't think I could stomach being in his head.

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    1. Just so glad you made it, Precie!

      I am a fan of multi-pov novels, especially when you get to see the same event from the perspective of different people. And I agree; her handling is masterful.

      I'm not sure if you saw Sarah's comment about Jordan essentially cutting Pappy's tongue out, but I think it's a brilliant observation.

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  22. I had more to say but lost it. Still processing things in my head.

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  23. Jennifer, I wanted to add THANKS for hosting this discussion. It was great! I loved seeing everyone's insights.

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    1. I loved it, too! I hope we can do it again.

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    2. Yes yes, thanks so much Jen! I know I didn't participate much, been so swamped and behind as it is in life, but really loved reading all the comments, and LOVED the book. What's next?

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    3. Yes, thank you so much, Jennifer! This was wonderful, and now we'll always have Mudbound as a reference point for our discussions.

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    1. I'm so glad, Steve. I hope you enjoy it!

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