Home, Mudbound,and Scottsboro Boys

Three books in one bog entry... for me there is one common theme to them too, which is race and the way it is approached in literature.  I should almost like to include Coetze's "Friday" here, but I think that work deserves consideration alone and in any case four would be, I think, a book too far!

"Home" is a sequel or follow up to "Gilead" which was highly successful for Marilyn Robinson and the January choice of my reading group.  Although I did not make it to the reading group in February it did get to feature on their new blog and I have made a comment there, one which I expect will stand alone since this book group are definitely a fan of the printed page a proper meeting.  There are plenty of other online reading communities and active blogs out there, some in the blogroll to the right.  But back to "Home" and as you will have seen if you clicked through to my comment there is one thing I was left puzzled by, which likely would not have happened to me had I started reading the works with the highly acclaimed "Gilead".  I had formed the impression the family at the centre of the narrative were black, African Americans to be exact.  It is largely this which gives the common thread to this post so perhaps I stretched the connection.

Gilead is the name of the small, rural Idaho town where the Broughton family home is.  They are a large family and the narrative is told by the youngest daughter who returns home to care for the ageing patriarch of the family.  There is a touching portrayal of the return of one of her brothers, perhaps the black sheep of the family.  What I liked best was the exploration of things they shared despite being obviously quite different siblings with different life paths.  The simple fact they had shared the same family allowed them to make connections they would never have managed as people who were not related.  This was actually the only hopeful part in a rather bleak novel, but only bleak in a realistic sense.  There was plenty touching and encouraging and very beautifully portrayed within that.

Ms Robinson has left herself plenty of scope for another sequel exploring how life goes on for Rosalind, the youngest in my opinion.  Everything we learn about Jack is presented obliquely and in a shady manner which is a cunning way to paint him since this is the sort of character he is.  A drifter and destined to leave the novel as he arrives, from the street with not a penny to his name and a drink problem that haunts him along with a past relationship.  It was this relationship that finally meant i Had to accept this family is white and not black, because Della is the daughter of another minister and definitely coloured.  I did get a little tired of the way Jack's father tended to dominate the novel, but perhaps that was a reflection of Jack's life too in that he always felt he had not done enough and was destined not to make his father proud of him.  One could make an interesting criticism of the novel exploring the question of predestination.

You could not say the same of " Mudbound" the first novel by Hillary Jordan which is very directly concerned with the question of race in the American past, but also has a strong element of family drama and patriarchy.  This time the patriarchy is rather less benevolent, although the elder son of the family whom our "heroine" narrator marries does present a more positive image, perhaps.

Set between the wars in the deep South of America this has many historical scenes directly concerning race - I should love to know if the auther of black and if not I am impressed by her research an ability to portray things convincingly from the point of view of Ronson and his family.  She did seem to me to have a very convincing way of speaking from a male viewpoint and understanding his friendship with the younger brother.  I commonly admire it when a male author can convincingly write from a female viewpoint, so here is a counterpoint for a woman author.

Last but not least Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman is a ficitional work of a very real historical event.  The reading group by large had not heard of the event personally I was also surprised that it has faded from modern consciousness.  So as a work that reminds one of the historical sweep of the case and the historical background perhaps this book has some merit.  But as a work novel in it's own right I found it extremely lacklustre, the characters felt very thin, almost to the extent of being cardboard cut-outs.  We are only really presented with two protagonists, both female.  Everyone else is a walk on character and it seemed to me there were few and far between strong male roles here, which somehow seemed a lack when the tragedy of Scottsboro is the prejudice and bigotry leading to the wrongful arrest of nine black men whose lives were effectively ended thereafter.  I found myself far more interested in how events may have affected those men and frustrated by the way the novel would not go there.

If you are interested in the journalistic process and dilemmas it throws up then perhaps this book my hold more for you, since the leading lady is presented almost solely in the light of what was no doubt quite a pioneering career for a woman in those times as she works for a left wing journal covering events.  The role of the communist party is mildly interesting too and no doubt informed somewhat by the figure of Ruby Bates who seems really rather a stereotype of underclass suffering and makes me feel the book is almost parodying the liberal feelings of our protagonist.

All in all I did not really enjoy it, although the story if made somewhat compelling.  Others might get more form it though and no doubt it suffered coming after other books all of which had involved race to some degree....

I think I have also learned not to break off a posting in the midst of writing it (these last four paragraphs were written some days after the main substance).  I shall try to avoid doing that in future and hope this posting has not suffered as a result.


  1. Oh my! Yesterday my partner and I heard an interview with Marilyn Robinson on "The Book Programme" which jogged my memory for "Gilead" and prompted me to search my own blog.

    Lo and behold this turned up! I have made a whole post on the subject over here, but this comment is just to correct the inaccuracy in the original post! I really must read my own Wikipedia links, because Gilead was written BEFORE Home and not afterwards, as I thought and wrote in my post!

    Paul on