Thursday, February 17, 2011 | Updated: Tue Feb 22, 2011
by Tom Rivers:
The latest Tale for Three Counties book, “Mudbound,” features a cast of deplorable characters, with Pappy winning the prize for worst. He is a racist, a horrible father and a pox on everyone he encounters.
But hey, it’s the Deep South in the 1940s, what do you expect? You knew Pappy and his Klansmen ilk were hate-filled heathens.
It’s been more than three months since I read the book, and I seldom think of Pappy. He was so repulsive, I can’t imagine people living like that these days.
Instead, his son Henry, who thinks of himself as a Goody Two-Shoes, has emerged as the villain with the most lasting impression, someone I think many of us can identify with. He could have spared everyone so much pain and suffering if he had made better choices. Henry, because of his pride and selfishness, doesn’t see his role in all the problems and destruction. In his eyes, it’s everyone else’s fault and he will bravely try to set things right.
Henry prides himself on doing good. He lets his father stay in Henry’s house, which is fine with Henry, because he is seldom home. He doesn’t have to listen to his foul father. Henry spends much of the day in the fields, leaving his wife and children to absorb Pappy’s insults and oppressive presence.
Mr. Do-Right should have shielded his wife and children from Pappy. Henry knew his father was toxic. So that’s a big strike against Henry.
The guy won his wife’s heart with the prospect of being a normal, stable person. He offered the prospect of a life with few highs or lows. Laura found that agreeable.
Then Henry uprooted her far from her family, moving her to a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta. Laura didn’t have a choice. Henry sprung the move on her, deciding all by himself.
But Mr. Perfect made a careless mistake. He purchased a house in town away from the farm with a handshake agreement. He figured his wife and family would like modern living. But Henry never put anything in writing. When he moved his family to the Delta, he discovered the homeowner took Henry’s money but sold the house to someone else.
Henry prided himself on his determination. He refused to give up. He moved his family into a shack by the cotton fields. The area was prone to flooding, intense heat and insects. It proved miserable for his wife, not that Henry noticed. While she suffered, he was overjoyed with his land and crop.
Henry often reflected on the words of his dying grandfather, who told Henry to go outside and grab him some dirt while the grandfather lay on his death bed.
“Remember this, boy,” the grandfather told Henry. “You can put your faith in a whole lot of things — in God, in money, in other people — but land’s the only thing you can count on to be there tomorrow. It’s the only thing that’s really yours.”
That would prove disastrous advice for Henry. While he worked so hard chasing his dream — owning land — he would lose everything else.
I’m surprised he doesn’t face condemnation from more readers. He is barely mentioned in the reader questions at the back of the book or in the interview with the author. Pappy seems an easy target of wrath. But Pappy’s racist ways have long been denounced in our country. I’m not so sure about the Henries of the world. The know-it-all husband still rules the nest in many homes, too often putting their families in jeopardy while chasing some ill-conceived dream.
(Mudbound author Hillary Jordan will be in town from March 10-12 for a series of book talks and book-signings.)
Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation