Monday, June 18, 2012


by Hillary Jordan
paperback Algonquin Books | March 2009

Laura and Henry MacAllan marry and have two young daughters. One day, Henry announces he's bought a farm and while there's no proper house on the property, they'll rent a house in town and he'll work the land. Laura is horrified - she has no interest in such a life - but she can only go along since Henry is her husband. Soon, Laura is saddled with Henry's curmudgeonly, racist father Pappy. Then Henry's younger brother Jamie arrives, back from the war. With everyone living in the very old farmhouse not fit for humans after the house in town falls through, their patience and family ties are tested.

This 2009 Alex Award winner (given annually by the American Library Association to 10 books published for adults but of special interest to young adult readers) takes place in post-WWII Mississippi. When Ronsel Jackson comes home from the war to his family, living on the MacAllan farm as sharecroppers, the real trouble begins. Ronsel, who's black, and Jamie, who's white, bond over the war and forge a kind of friendship, much to the chagrin of Pappy. Jamie and Laura meanwhile, are bonding over a shared view of Henry's stoic ways. Finally, one fateful night, everyone's future hangs in the balance when Pappy and his comrades plan something unthinkable and are interrupted.

Told in first person chapters by Laura, Henry, and Jamie as well as Ronsel, and both his parents, Florence and Hap, the book looks at love, home, family, race, and power. Jordan silences Pappy - no chapter is told through his perspective - a powerful narrative decision which denies him any scrap of sympathy he otherwise might garner from a reader. I applaud the decision since hating Pappy is one thing at the crux of my reading experience with this novel. Any shred of possibility that he could explain himself is negated with Jordan's narratological decision. (Much like Brother Leon is silenced in The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier,  Although that novel has 13 different focalizers, the evil Leon is not one.)

This is one of the most beautifully written and poignant novels I've read. The topic is a tough one, yet Jordan handles it deftly. Also the winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, it is the kind of book that stays with a reader for years and lures you back to read it again. The tiny details intertwine to make up the brilliant story - which also stands as political and historical commentary.

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