Two Bellwether Prize Winners by Heidi Durrow and Hillary Jordan

I conceived of the idea to read all of the Bellwether Prize winners because I loved Lisa Ko’s The Leavers so much. The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction is a biennial award given since 2000 by PEN America and Barbara Kingsolver, who created and funds the prize, “to a U.S. citizen for a previously unpublished work of fiction that addresses issues of social justice.” (More information can be found here.) Earlier this year, I found secondhand or cheap new copies of two of the winners and tried another one from the library.

 

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow (2010)

This review is ALL SPOILER because there isn’t really a way to discuss the book otherwise, so skip onwards if you think you might want to read this someday. Durrow was inspired by her own family history – she is biracial, her father a Black serviceman and her mother from Denmark – and by a newspaper story about a woman who jumped off the top of a multi-story building with her small children. Only one daughter survived the fall. Durrow was captivated by that girl’s story and wanted to imagine what her life would be like in the wake of tragedy.

In 1982, Rachel has come to live with her father’s mother in Portland, Oregon. She’s starting a new life there after a long time in the hospital. She survived her mother Nella’s leap from their Chicago apartment building because she landed on the top of the heap of three siblings. As her teen years unfold, she struggles to incorporate her European heritage with her African American identity and turns to promiscuity. Details of what happened that day in Chicago unfold gradually.

The secondary characters are more interesting than Rachel herself, even though she narrates, and I felt more sympathy for her when she was a child. I would have liked more of the mother’s journal entries, showing how her depression and alcoholism developed. The coincidence of the one eyewitness to the jump ending up in Portland was too much for me. Overall, this was fairly dismal and didn’t make enough of its compelling premise. It was an easy read, but had it been much longer than 260 pages I would likely have DNFed.

My rating:

 

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan (2008)

1946: Two servicemen return from fighting in Europe, headed to the same Mississippi farm. Jamie McAllan was a fighter pilot and Ronsel Jackson was part of a tank division. Both are dependent on alcohol to help them cope with the memories of what they have seen and done. But Jamie can get away with drunk driving and carousing with local women, knowing that his big brother, Henry, will take him back in no matter what. Ronsel, though, has to keep his head down and be on his guard at every moment: war hero or not, no one in Mississippi is going to let a Black man walk in through the front door of a store or get a lift home in a white man’s truck. His sharecropping family’s position at the McAllan farm, Mudbound, is precarious, with the weather and the social hierarchy always working against them.

This story of love, betrayal, and the obsession with land is told through rotating first-person narration from six key players, three McAllans and three Jacksons. Each voice is distinct and perfectly captures the character’s personality and level of education. Jordan uses this kaleidoscope view to explore how fateful decisions bind the two families together. I particularly loved the two female voices: Laura, Henry’s wife; and Florence, Ronsel’s mother. Though they’re often stuck inside cooking and delivering babies, they still play their roles in the farm’s drama. The novel opens with a burial scene, but readers get faked out not once but twice about how the character died. I raced through the last three-quarters, and the final 50–100 pages are a real doozy. This feels like a modern classic of the segregated South and I’d recommend it for those looking for a follow-up to The Vanishing Half.

My rating:

 

And a DNF:

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (2010)

I read 25 pages and didn’t feel drawn into the characters’ story. When the main characters are from a persecuted ethnic minority and one boy is a star runner, you sort of know where things are heading. (I’m also perhaps too familiar with Rwandan history from We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch.)

  

Remaining Bellwether Prize winners:

2019 Katherine Seligman, If You Knew [retitled At the Edge of the Haight – publication forthcoming in January 2021]

2014 Ron Childress, And West Is West

2012 Susan Nussbaum, Good Kings Bad Kings

2004 Marjorie Kowalski Cole, Correcting the Landscape

2002 Gayle Brandeis, The Book of Dead Birds

2000 Donna Gershten, Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth

 

Have you read one of these winners? Do any tempt you?

8 responses

  1. I’d forgotten all about this prize. Mudbound sounds by far the best winner of these three. Clearly Netflix liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve not seen the Netflix film, but my paperback copy was the tie-in edition so I did picture these actors as the characters in my head, and it didn’t seem to be a problem.

      I was worried that I would find some of the winners too worthy. That might be true of the Benaron, though I didn’t give it much of a try. The others don’t seem easy to get hold of, so this project might require a secondhand shopping spree in America in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I also adored The Leavers. The Girl Who Fell From The Sky sounds like it had an amazing premise, so I’m sorry to hear it didn’t deliver for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I smiled in recognition at your intro to this post because it was Mudbound that convinced me that I needed to read all the prize winners. I wonder if, in some ways, the fact that one of the books so captured our attention means that we will consistently be a little disappointed in all the others? Like you, I found the premise of Durrow’s novel more satisfying than the execution, but I would be interested in other books of hers. (I enjoyed The Leavers a great deal, but not quite as much as Mudbound.) These are a challenge for me to find as well, but I’m keen, all the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suppose social justice is such a broad topic that it makes sense that some topics and writing styles would appeal to me more than others. I haven’t looked into the others to any degree yet, but I want to at least give them a try.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. How I loved Mudbound when I read it years ago. I didn’t even realize it was a prizewinner until now! I’m afraid to watch the movie in case they’ve ruined it. Have you heard?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know anything about the movie. Carey Mulligan is the only actor from it that I remember seeing in other things. I really like her. But, bizarrely, just from seeing them on the cover I could imagine the other actors in the novel’s scenes!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That must be a good sign!

        Like

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