Mudbound is about people, relationships, and racism set in a 1940s Mississippi backdrop. If you have read any American history or any fiction based in the South during this time period, then some of the issues in this book will be quite familiar to you. I appreciate that not everyone will be aware of just how bad the racism was at that time, or that from the 19th century into the 1950s, most US states enforced anti-miscegenation laws, so in that respect this book might be a real eye-opener if these things were unclear or unknown to you beforehand.
Mudbound is the name of the farm but it is also a metaphor. All the people in the book are stuck, some of them are trying to climb out of the mud and others are being sucked further into the mud, others are quite happy rolling around in it. The novel has a multi-narrator point of view, meaning that it switches from character to character for each chapter. There are six characters that are allowed to tell the story, and the concept of who has a voice and who is allowed or not allowed to use it, is definitely interesting, especially relating to what happens to one of them during the course of the novel. I would say that you do have to pay attention to the chapter titles, especially at the beginning, so you are clear on who is speaking. The beginning of the book for example, I assumed was voiced by Laura (since the story implied it was about Laura and Henry)until she turns up in page 6 and I realise that it's actually the younger brother who is speaking in this first chapter. Pay attention to the chapter headings to avoid any confusion!
The book is narrated by Laura, her husband Henry, his brother Jamie, and the tenant farmers; Hap and Florence, and later their son Ronsel when he returns from fighting in WWII. By far the most interesting narration comes from Florence, Ronsel and perhaps Laura. Henry is a character that held no interest to me and all through the book I was hoping Laura would leave him and run off with Jamie or just go back to her parents house if only for the indoor plumbing! I'm really glad that Pappy, the grandfather, was not given a voice, as I think those chapters would have made my skin crawl.
Despite the multi point of view, I really believe this is a book aimed at women. I don't think it's a book that would speak to the majority of men. It is basically the story of what happens to city-dwelling Laura, when her husband uproots her from her comfortable existence in her family home in Memphis, and deposits her unceremoniously in the mudbound farm of the same name. In 2008, it's really hard to put yourself in Laura's shoes, to understand how accepting she was of everything and how little choice she had, and how much she was required to obey her husband. Personally I would never have put up with Henry, and would have refused to go live in a shack in the middle of nowhere, especially considering this came completely out of the blue. Henry had never shared his ambition to be a farmer with Laura until the day he announces he has bought a farm!
All of the southern white characters are racist to some degree. Some are more racist than other, ranging from Pappy who is so full of hate it is palpable, to Jamie who is a little more open-minded than the rest about some things, but who still believes interracial sex is wrong. Remember it was still against the law - between 1913 and 1948, 30 out of the then 48 states enforced anti-miscegenation laws! It can be a little hard to read, and it is truly offensive in some parts and incredulous in others, but what happens in the book is really quite mild in comparison to what happened in reality.
The ending was a little predictable and that was a disappointment. There were also some not so subtle hints of what was to come dotted through the book, so that even from the first few pages you already knew what to expect and really it was just a matter of reading on until they happened. The problems with the end of the book make it seem anti-climactic after the "tragic climax" making it feel almost rushed in an attempt to tidy up any loose ends quickly. Yet this is a very readable worthy book with some important messages about racism and humanity as well as some real insight in to life in the Delta sixty odd years ago.
Is it a good choice for the first Richard and Judy New Writers Book Club? Well, it has already won the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded biennially to a debut novel that addresses issues of social justice. It was a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick for summer 2008, a Borders Original Voices selection, a Book Sense pick, and one of twelve New Voices of 2008 chosen by Waterstone's UK, so yeah I think it was a good choice and a pretty safe bet.
I give this book 7 out of 10 for being an engrossing and compelling read. Points deducted for lack of originality and some predictability.
If you liked this book, then I would recommend The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, In The Fall by Jeffrey Lent; or if you would like to try some non-fiction; There is a River : The Black Struggle for Freedom in America by Vincent Harding.