RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The new novel "Mudbound" is a story of racism and well-kept secrets set on a desolate farm in the Mississippi Delta at the end of World War II. It explores the complex relations between two families: the owners of the land and the sharecroppers who live and work on it. It's Hillary Jordan's first novel and it earned her the Bellwether Prize for fiction. That's an award founded by writer Barbara Kingsolver to promote literature of social responsibility.
NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY: Barbara Kingsolver doesn't know exactly when or why it happened, but she's sure of one thing. Literature about social chance has fallen out of favor in this country. Books like Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" or Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" were once held up for praise. But now, Kingsolver says, works with a moral center and a political message are looked down on as too earnest.
Ms. BARBARA KINGSOLVER (Writer): When artists do write social critique, however artfully, we are somehow expected to apologize for that or at least to justify our choice of political content. You know, interviewers often say, well, now, isn't this political? Heck yes.
NEARY: That's why Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize, which is given biannually to an unpublished author who not only wins a cash prize but also a guaranteed publishing contract. "Mudbound," says Kingsolver, is a beautifully written novel that examines the roots of racism through the distinct voices of its characters.
Ms. KINGSOLVER: I love the voices of the novel. I love that you understand everybody, even though everyone isn't right, and in the long run, some people are very wrong. But you begin by feeling their own perspective, and you have some sympathy for every character.
NEARY: Hillary Jordan says "Mudbound" was inspired by her mother's family stories of the year they spent on an isolated farm without running water or electricity. Eventually it grew into a larger story with darker themes. But the first character she wrote about, Laura, was based on her own grandmother.
Ms. HILLARY JORDAN (Author, "Mudbound"): I started out writing what I thought was going to be a short story in the voice of Laura, and as the story grew I just found myself wanting to hear from other people. As the story got larger, as it embraced these other themes, these larger themes about war and about Jim Crow, I wanted to hear from those people.
NEARY: There is no omniscient narrator in this story. Instead, it's told from the perspective of six characters - black and white, male and female. Henry buys the farm and moves his unsuspecting family there. His brother Jamie, just home from the war, joins them. Laura, Henry's wife, is a city girl who cannot believe where she now lives, the dreary farm she calls Mudbound.
Unidentified Woman: (Reading) When I think of the farm, I think of mud, lemming(ph) my husband's fingernails and encrusting the children's knees and hair, sucking at my feet like a greedy newborn on the breast, marching in boot-shaped patches across the plank floors of the house. There was no defeating it. The mud coated everything. I dreamed in brown.
NEARY: Hap and Florence are the black sharecroppers on the farm. Their son, Ronsel, is a proud World War II veteran. On his first day back, a nasty confrontation with racists at a local store reminds him of what he left behind when he went to war.
Unidentified Woman: (Reading) Jimmy would've been proud of me that day at Tricklebanks(ph), but my daddy would've blistered my ears. All he knew was the delta. He'd never walked down the street with his head held high, much less had folks lined up on either side cheering him and throwing flowers at him. The battles he'd fought were the kind nobody cheers you for winning, against sore feet and aching bones, too little rain or too much, heat and cotton worms and buried rocks that could break the blade of a plow. Ain't never a lull or a cease-fire.
NEARY: Finding the voices and making them sound authentic was difficult, Jordan says. She did a lot of research to find the voice of her black characters. Even so, she says it was a daunting task.
Ms. JORDAN: I had a number of well-meaning friends say things to me like even Faulkner didn't write about black people in the first person, but you know, ultimately I just decided that it was so important to let my black characters address the ugliness of Jim Crow themselves, in their own voices.
NEARY: One friend who supported her decision was fellow writer James Canyon, who read the book as Jordan was writing it.
Mr. JAMES CANYON (Writer): She was looking for a compelling and convincing way of telling her novel, and that meant including everybody, letting everybody speak, black and white, male and female. Otherwise it would have been - it would be like a one-sided story.
NEARY: Did you ever have conversations about whether, you know, African-American readers might not accept the way that she was interpreting these voices?
Mr. CANYON: Yeah, and of course it was always a concern. Hillary is as white as you can be, and to write in the voice of a black person from the South, it is definitely a challenge. It is a little risky, but she had no choice, but rather a challenge, and she went for it, you know, and she did it.
NEARY: At first, Jordan says, she just wanted to write a page-turner and only gradually realized she was writing a book that had something to say about our society.
Ms. JORDAN: I really tried never to let the message get in the way of the story. I mean, ultimately this book is about those six people and about their lives and about what happened to them in this very brutal time in which they were living, and it's also about forbidden love and betrayal and murder and some of the really juicy stuff.
NEARY: The stories Jordan heard about the family farm when she was growing up were mostly charming and funny. It was only in researching the book that she came to understand they were also stories of survival and that the lessons to be learned about the consequences of racism deserve to be told again and again.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: And you can read about finding a slave's grave in an excerpt of Hillary Jordan's new novel at npr.org/books.