Southern voices emerge from writer's absorbing first novel

By Hillary Jordan. 
Algonquin. 336 pp. $22.95.

Any Southern writer worth her fatback is compared to Faulkner or Flannery, but Hillary Jordan doesn't get bogged down in the giant footsteps of either during the course of her absorbing debut novel, Mudbound.

Is it too early to say, after just one book, that here's a voice that will echo for years to come?

That said, Jordan's opening sentence, ”Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep,“ is pure O'Connor. And characters like Pappy, the ­cantankerous family patriarch, overpopulate Yoknapatawpha County. ”Southern“ is tough to scrub off.

But Jordan has chosen to divide her book into chapters told in six distinct voices, ­allowing the reader to see the same events from varying points of view, and that is what sets Mudbound apart. Jordan is skillful enough to make each voice unique, allowing us to shine a lantern into the dark corners of each character's mind.

Set just after World War II in the Mississippi Delta, Mudbound begins with that hole, two diggers lashed by wind and rain, struggling to get the coffin in before the mud fills it back up.

Halfway down, they find a shackled leg bone, a skull with a bullet hole in the back. It's a slave's grave. The diggers are brothers, and they're burying their father. Jamie, the younger brother and narrator of the opening chapter, smiles. ”Henry was right,“ he thinks, ”there's nothing our father would have hated more.“

Two families — black and white, physically and metaphorically — are at the center of Mudbound, a novel of injustice, betrayal — and, perhaps, a little bit of hope.

The McAllans are Henry and Laura and their two young girls; the Jacksons are tenants on the ­McAllans' ­cotton farm, offering a quarter-share of their crop for their labors.

Laura is from a gentile Memphis family, a teacher and singer in the church choir nearly sentenced to spinsterhood: ”I was a 31-year-old virgin when I met Henry McAllan … He was my rescuer from the margins, from the pity, scorn and crabbed kindness that are the portion of old maids.“

Henry McAllan's dream is land; he wants to return to the farming life of his youth. He surprises his wife one day with the deed to a couple hundred acres of rich, black Delta farmland, notifying her that they're moving in two weeks.

Laura faces the ugly transition from afternoon tea at the Peabody Hotel to outhouse plumbing. It's a hard life: ”When I think of the farm, I think of mud … sucking at my feet like a greedy newborn on the breast.“

She puts on her best face, however, ”pumping, churning, scouring, scraping,“ all the while enduring the constant jabs of her widowed father-in-law, a bitter old racist who lives with them. Oblivious Henry — he wants to name the farm Fair Fields, but his girls suggest Mudbound and the name sticks — is in heaven.

Enter Jamie, back from the war, a decorated Air Force hero. Copper-haired ­Jamie is 20 years younger than his older brother, who treats him like a son. Jamie has a talent for doing no wrong — with anyone. Laura always has been a little in love with him, which will lead to tragic turns.

The Jacksons are Hap, the ambitious father who dreams of owning his own land and preaches on Sunday; mother Florence, tall and fierce, a midwife who can spout Scripture but has more faith in backwoods spells; and Ronsel, the oldest son, who yearns for something better than tenant farming and Southern injustice after fighting in a tank battalion in Europe. Europe holds a secret for Ronsel that will come back to haunt him in horrific ways.

Jordan, who was raised in Dallas and now lives in New York, won the Bellwether Prize for Mudbound, an award founded by novelist Barbara Kingsolver that promotes literature of social change and is given to an unpublished manuscript.

With authentic, earthy prose — ”His lips were dark red, like the gills of a bass“ — Jordan picks at the scabs of racial inequality that will perhaps never fully heal and brings just enough heartbreak to this intimate, universal tale, just enough suspense, to leave us contemplating how the lives and motives of these vivid characters might have been different.