Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

I purchased Mudbound for the library some time ago, and I actually started reading it, but then I put it down because some new book that I'd been waiting and waiting for came out, and I just couldn't help it and had to read that one. Now, I wish I would have continued with Mudbound because it turned out to be a wonderful book full of carefully crafted characters thrown together  to create a compelling story of prejudice, love, family, and sacrifice. 

The book is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of Laura McAllan, her husband Henry, her charming brother-in-law Jamie, and a neighboring share-cropper's son named Ronsel Jackson. Laura is a woman in danger of becoming an old maid until she meets Henry, an aging war veteran with a limp and the deep desire to become a farmer. He drags Laura away from her family and friends and plops her on a piece of ground she aptly names "Mudbound" because of its general lack of appeal. Henry's brother Jamie eventually returns from war also, becoming the light in the muddy world for Laura and her little girls. Jamie also befriends Ronsel, a war veteran himself who struggles with life after war and after love. But because Jamie is the son of a southern, white, farmer, and Ronsel is the son of a southern, black share cropper, the friendship becomes the center point for conflict both within and without the families. All these characters at some point have to deal with Jamie and Henry's volatile, ultra-prejudiced father, Pappy, who tries to rule the roost that Laura tends to, and who loves to stir up any trouble he can simply to have something to do.

This mix of characters along with the intermingling issues of prejudice, race, sibling rivalry, and farming as a lifestyle all make for a fabulous read. Reading Mudbound was a shocking look at how many Americans seem to love prejudice and feeling superior to others. Although I'd like to think much of this kind of deep ignorance has been wiped out by societal pressure, good leadership, and conscience, I know that, in reality, it still exists. People (and I include myself at times) hide their prejudices behind things like religion or law, saying that there are rules, and we simply have to follow them because someone wrote them down for us and interpreted them for us. To accept rules that are unjust or inhumane simply because they are written seems supremely ignorant to me. After all, segregation rules were law in this country at one time. Where would our country be if no one stood up against the injustice? There are still religions where women can have very limited roles or no role at all because they are inferior beings in the eyes of God. Now, I'm not saying we can be lawless or usurp the law anytime we want to, but when we see injustice, it needs to be challenged. People are people, equals in their rights to humanity and Mudbound does an excellent job of illustrating this in vivid writing and voice.

I encourage you to read Mudbound for a lesson in prejudice, freedom, equality, and good writing. Enjoy!

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver is a book some say that everyone should read. It's a book that brings up ideas of what life could be like if mankind gave up on certain ideas that so far most people believe are essential. Ideas like personal freedom, creativity, and human rights are nonexistant in the world of The Giver. What would life be like without these most basic things? Well,  Lowry tries to tell us in her novel.

This is the story of Jonas, a 12-year-old boy who is chosen to be the receiver of all the memories of all the ages. The Giver is an old man who has held these memories for the people so that they do not have to experience things like war, illness, loneliness, greed, or many other unpleasant, painful emotions and physical weaknesses. But by taking away memory for all, this also means that the Giver is the only one who holds the good memories, too; memories of pleasure such as sledding down a hill on a wintry day, feelings of love and companionship, feelings of joy or success. All of these have been given up by the people for all time so that their society can be "happy" and "productive" without any conflict whatsoever. Jonas, then, is to be the new holder of all of this, good and bad. The question becomes this: once Jonas knows the fundamental truths of life, such as how the people of this community are "released" from society, can he handle it? Will he see utopia as just that, or will he wish to put back all the memories so that the people can once again feel all that there is, and be all that they can be?

Lowry's book is a fascinating study in society that made me eternally grateful for things like free will, democracy, religion, individual creativity, and the joy that can come from daily living. In Jonas' world, people can't even see in color, their job is chosen for them, they don't choose their own clothes, and they don't keep their own babies to raise. There really is nothing except for the community and its ongoing peacefulness. When someone loses his usefulness or is not seen as a good addition to the community, they are "released" by the others.

Some find the book too ambiguous because it does leave almost everything up for interpretation. This didn't bother me too much until the end. The ending, too, is ambiguous, and this always bothers me a lot. I like a novel to "end." I like to sit and wonder about characters and places, but I don't like to wonder about what the author thinks happens to them. The author should know, right, so why can't she tell us?

To me, the big question in the book is this: If we know nothing of pain or sorrow, can we really feel joy to its fullest? If there is no evil, can we clearly see the good in people? If the plan is a contant status quo, can there ever be improvement? My answer to all of these is "no." What would your answer be?