‘Tale’ readers find plenty to talk about

Posted: Friday, March 11, 2011
By Ben Beagle and Mike Pettinella news@batavianews.com

BATAVIA — The audience at Thursday night’s “A Tale for Three Counties” author visit at Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St., got more than they expected.

While Hillary Jordan talked about the decisions that went in to writing her debut novel “Mudbound” a book discussion broke out.

Readers debated whether Pappy, a bitter old racist, was sad or happy and expressed frustration that Laura, the educated matriarch of the white McAllan family, didn’t stand up more to her husband, the land-obsessed Henry.

“I really tried to show things as they were. It’s hard to imagine how hard it was then to be a woman as it was to be a black,” said Jordan, who helped fuel the discussion by asking questions back at the 150 or so people who gathered at the library.

“Mudbound” explores racial tension and prejudice through the eyes of two families — the McAllans, and their black sharecroppers, the Jacksons — as they struggle to survive on a ramshackle cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta just after World War II.

In talks at Richmond and an afternoon program at Genesee Community College that was also transmitted via video-link to a small group at GCC’s Lima Campus Center, Jordan detailed the seven years journey she took in developing the book from a college writing assignment.

She was also guest of honor at a morning reception at GCC where she chatted informally with about 20 faculty, staff and invited guests, including students Chris Abdella Jr. and Matthew Bilohlavek, winners of a college essay contest about “Mudbound.”

At each stop the author exuded confidence and openness as she shared her thoughts and emotions in taking an idea inspired by stories of her grandparents’ year living on an Arkansas farm through nearly a dozen drafts to a finished novel that has earned much acclaim, including the 2006 Bellwether Prize for its examination of social injustice.

Writing is hard work, Jordan said; revisions are even harder.

“But that’s where the magic happens,” she said at the reception. “You have to learn to be able to open yourself to criticism, especially after producing your baby.”

One publisher, she noted, wanted her to eliminate six of the seven narrative voices and write only from Laura’s perspective.

“That wasn’t my book,” said Jordan, who made some changes, but kept her narratives and had to find another publisher.

Thursday’s public talks drew more than 300 people, with two more talks scheduled through Saturday. Today, Jordan will have lunch with winners of a writing contest sponsored by The Daily News, and give a 7 p.m. talk at Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, 620 West Ave., Medina. Her final presentation is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday in the auditorium at Perry Elementary/Middle School, 50 Olin Ave., Perry.

The diminutive Jordan spoke with a Southern drawl in distinguishing cadences as she read from her book — chapters narrated by Laura and Florence at Richmond, and Jamie, Ronsel and Laura at GCC.

“This was my favorite. I liked how she used the voices for all the different characters,” said Anne O’Geen of Batavia. “I loved the way she read with an accent. It was like she was putting on a character.”

Even when not reading from her book, Jordan’s accent — she grew up in Dallas and Muskogee, Okla. —slipped in.

“I think it was because it is so much a part of her history that it comes out. It’s probably what makes the book so good,” said Liz Saleh of Corfu.

Jordan also elicited laughter, such as when explaining how much historical research she did: “I know more than should legally be allowed about farming, boll weevils and mules. Don’t get me started on tractors.”

The humor helped counter discussion of the book’s darker moments. Writing about the lynching of Ronsel, the black war hero abducted by the Ku Klux Klan, was very difficult, Jordan said.

“It took me days to write, even though it’s not that long a scene in the book. But I could only be in it a short time,” she said. “There was a lot of crying. It was a very emotional week of writing.”

Readers accepted the challenge, too.

“It really disturbed me,” said Rita Zawicki of Batavia, who planned to re-read the book after hearing Jordan’s talk. “There was such a strong feeling of patriotism after World War II, and yet here’s this black guy come home and he’s still treated worse than dirt. It was authentic, but that was hard to read.”

Lisa Klossner of East Amherst attended with several members of her book group.

“I didn’t laugh much with this book,” said Klossner, who works at the state School for the Blind in Batavia.

“It was hard reading, but I stayed with it,” she said. “When the characters get into you so deep like these did, you want to know more. I think that’s how a good book really affects you.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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