‘Tale’ author pierces souls, touches lives

Posted: Monday, March 14, 2011
Ben Beagle/The Daily News Online

‘Tale’ author pierces souls, touches lives By Ben Beagle bbeagle@batavianews.com The Daily News Online

PERRY — Author Hillary Jordan left behind a wake of pierced souls as she concluded a series of talks and book signings Saturday afternoon at Perry Elementary/Middle School.

Jordan’s debut novel, “Mudbound,” was this year’s selection in the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project. The novel, set in the Mississippi Delta just after World War II, explores racism and prejudice through the eyes of two families — one black, one white — struggling to survive on a cotton farm.

“It was hard to read the book, that’s why I can’t say I loved it. It doesn’t seem right to say that,” said Mary Eisenhard of Pavilion, one of about 80 people to listen to Jordan’s talk in Perry.

“But it’s a very powerful book,” Eisenhard added. “It’s the kind of book that should be written. The kind that should be read.”

Jordan’s programs drew more than 500 people to talks that began Thursday at Genesee Community College and Richmond Memorial Library in Batavia. Talks continued Friday at Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, where 100 people attended, and culminated Saturday in Perry.

“She was fantastic, a very dynamic speaker,” said Joyce Thompson-Hovey of Pavilion, who has participated in Tale programs for many years. “I thought she had a good sense of humor, and I really got caught up in her stories.”

At each stop, Jordan read selected chapters from “Mudbound” and shared the years-long process it took to turn a college writing assignment — write three pages in the voice of a family member — into what would become her acclaimed debut novel. Along the way she persevered through more than a dozen rejections from publishers, 11 rewrites and other suggested changes from publishers that she didn’t pursue.

Readers were quick to share personal stories with Jordan, some telling of their own experiences with integration or race issues. At least three adults quietly told Jordan during her visits that “Mudbound” was the first book they had ever finished.

“That, to me,” Jordan said, “is both wonderful and heartbreaking.”

Jordan, in describing why she writes, used a quote from literary agent Lisa Bancroft, who told her that “Literature is writing that pierces the soul.”

“Some people want to heal the sick. Others prosecute criminals. Or design clothing. Or clean people’s teeth, though I don’t know why. But those of us who write literature want to pierce people’s souls.”

At that, “Mudbound” succeeded said readers who at each visit acknowledged the challenge of reading a book that, while fiction, revisited an all-too-real historical past that sometimes made readers uncomfortable.

The book illustrates segregation through a scene at a general store in which Ronsel, a black veteran, doesn’t step aside for a white customers and his father is later told to keep his son in line. Later, Ronsel is abducted and the victim of a violent act. There is also an incident of domestic violence, and another scene in which Laura, one of the book’s six narrators, faces the threat of violence.

“I was amazed that so many things happened to these characters. But I also felt that it was appropriate for this book and it‘s time. I don‘t think it would have been as effective without it,” said Deanna Berwanger of Silver Springs.

And the book didn’t just spur discussion of race issues, noted Thompson-Hovey, it also explored the relationship between men and women of the period. The book, she said, “really showed a perspective of what life was like then.”

“I loved the history,” she said. “I thought the characters were awesome.”

“Mudbound,” told from the alternating perspectives of six narrators — three black, three white –was inspired by stories Jordan grew up hearing from her grandparents’ year living on an Arkansas farm with black sharecroppers.

“The stories were a curious mix of funny and horrify,” said Jordan, who was raised in Dallas and Muskogee, Okla. “I think that applies to Southern stories, and also to farming stories.”

But in those stories, Jordan recalled, the black sharecroppers were always in the background “which in the Jim Crowe South is where it was thought they belonged.”

Even her grandparents, she said, were a product of their time.

“They were good people. Kind people, devout Christians, big-hearted,” Jordan said. “And this contradiction of entrenched bigotry in otherwise good people was something I wanted to explore.”

So in “Mudbound,” the black Jackson family is portrayed as much as the white McAllens, even as concern was expressed to Jordan about her being a white woman writing in the first-person voice of black characters.

“Letting my African-American characters speak is really the only way to give them a voice. It’s a small measure of justice,” she said.

There is more soul piercing in Jordan’s future. Her next book, the recently renamed “When She Woke,” arrives in early October. In about a month, the author hopes to begin work on her third book which will pick up the story of “Mudbound” when Ronsel’s illegitimate half-black, half-German son comes to America during the turbulent 1960s to find his father.

Later this month, she visits Pasadena, Calif., for another community reading project.

“Being the focus of so much attention, adoration really, I kind of feel like a rock star,” Jordan said in an interview following her Perry program. “It’s humbling to feel that you’ve touched so many people.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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