The Bellwether Prize for Fiction goes every two years to an unpublished manuscript that promotes, in literary form, social justice and change, and the prize in 2006 went to author Hillary Jordan for her debut novel, Mudbound (Algonquin). The prize may have surprised the author; it won't surprise readers.
When the setting in Mudbound isn't Memphis, it's the Mississippi Delta. The year is 1946. And a lynching may or may not be in the works once Ronsel Jackson returns home from army service in Europe. When it's later discovered that Jackson has fathered a child by a woman in Germany, a lynching is in the works. But it's only one of the troubles that besets "Mudbound." That's the name given to the ramshackle farmhouse bought by businessman turned farmer Henry McAllan. It's home to Henry and his patient wife Laura (the Memphis woman McAllan rescued from spinsterhood), plus their two daughters, and it sits on land worked by a black sharecropping family: Ronsel's parents Hap and Florence and their young children. It's home too, for a few months, to Henry's alcoholic brother Jamie, another veteran of the war. And it's lorded over by Pap, Henry's and Jamie's father, a hateful old coot.
Torrential rains and a threatened cotton crop. A strained marriage and fulfillment in adultery. Miscegenation and the Klan. One World War and, back home, a world of racial unrest: Mudbound's got its share, maybe too much its share, of problems in need of solutions. No arguing, though, with Hillary Jordan's skillful blending of voices. And no denying that readers in search of straightforward storytelling will be hooked.
Hillary Jordan will sign copies of Mudbound at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Thursday, March 13th, at 6 p.m.
The Legend of Quito Road, Memphian Dwight Fryer's debut novel, took readers from the town of Lucy in north Shelby County to Memphis (and back) in the Jim Crow South of the early 20th century. In that book, it was Raymond "Son" Erby who learned the family trade (whiskey making), but it was Gillam Hale, Son's grandfather, who passed on the recipe — a recipe for survival. And now Gillam Hale is back in a prequel to The Legend of Quito Road, in the pages of Fryer's new novel, The Knees of Gullah Island (Sepia/Kimani Press). He's also back where he started: along the Eastern seaboard — with a story that begins in Maryland and moves down to Virginia. But it's Charleston where he finds his first wife and his first family of children. It's also where he finds a city still steeped in West African slave culture.
Fryer, a marketing manager at FedEx, is back too in a series of upcoming booksignings at area stores. Look for him on Tuesday, March 18th, at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. The time is 6 p.m.
On newstands this month: the spring 2008 issue of The Pinch, the literary journal produced by the creative writing department at the University of Memphis. Known for its nationally drawn nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and visual art, in this issue of The Pinch you'll find an interview with writer (and onetime Memphian) Mark Doty and contributions from this year's River City Writing Award winners Mary Ziegler and Len Krisak, plus the work of two Memphians: photographer Adam Remsen and poet Lynn Conlee. Gary Golightly, assistant professor of graphic design at the U of M, has produced his fifth in an ongoing series of eye-catching covers. Be on hand to celebrate The Pinch at L Ross Gallery (5040 Sanderlin) on Friday, March 14th, from 6 to 8 p.m.
For more literary doings, courtesy of the University of Memphis writing department: Welcome the next in the River City Writers Series of visiting authors, Floyd Skloot. He'll be doing a reading at the Jay Etkin Gallery (409 S. Main) on Monday, March 17th, at 7 p.m. (reception at 6 p.m.), and he'll be the subject of an interview in the U of M's Patterson Hall on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. Both events are free and open to the public, and by attending, you'll not only be supporting the local literary scene, you'll be doing a daughter proud. Skloot, in addition to being a novelist, poet, memoirist, essayist, and book reviewer, is the father of writer Rebecca Skloot, instructor in creative nonfiction at the U of M and coordinator of the River City Writers Series.