A riveting novel that explores the high price of success in the life of one woman—the first female president of a lauded ivy league institution—and her hold upon her self-identity in the face of personal and professional demons, from Joyce Carol Oates, author of the New York Times bestseller A Widow’s Story.
Mudgirl is a child abandoned by her mother in the silty flats of the Black Snake River. Cast aside, Mudgirl survives by an accident of fate—or destiny. After her rescue, the well-meaning couple who adopt Mudgirl quarantine her poisonous history behind the barrier of their middle-class values, seemingly sealing it off forever. But the bulwark of the present proves surprisingly vulnerable to the agents of the past.
Meredith “M.R.” Neukirchen is the first woman president of an Ivy League university. Her commitment to her career and moral fervor for her role are all-consuming. Involved with a secret lover whose feelings for her are teasingly undefined, and concerned with the intensifying crisis of the American political climate as the United States edges toward war with Iraq, M.R. is confronted with challenges to her leadership that test her in ways she could not have anticipated. The fierce idealism and intelligence that delivered her from a more conventional life in her upstate New York hometown now threaten to undo her.
A reckless trip upstate thrusts M.R. Neukirchen into an unexpected psychic collision with Mudgirl and the life M.R. believes she has left behind. A powerful exploration of the enduring claims of the past, Mudwoman is at once a psychic ghost story and an intimate portrait of a woman cracking the glass ceiling at enormous personal cost, which explores the tension between childhood and adulthood, the real and the imagined, and the “public” and “private” in the life of a highly complex contemporary woman.
In Beechum County it would be told—told and retold—how Mudgirl was saved by the King of the Crows.
How in the vast mudflats beside the Black Snake River in that desolate region of the southern Adirondacks there were a thousand crows and of these thousand crows the largest and fiercest and most sleek-black-feathered was the King of the Crows.
How the King of the Crows had observed the cruel behavior of the woman half-dragging a weeping child out into the mudflats to be thrown down into the mud soft-sinking as quicksand and left the child alone there to die in that terrible place.
And the King of the Crows flew overhead in vehement protest flapping his wide wings and shrieking at the retreating woman now shielding her face with her arms against the wrath of the King of the Crows in pursuit of her like some ancient heraldic bird-beast in the service of a savage God.
What is man? A ball of snakes.
—Frederich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
Here the frailest leaves of me and yet my strongest lasting,
Here I shade and hide my thoughts, I myself do not expose them,
And yet they expose me more than all my other poems.
—Walt Whitman, “Here the Frailest Leaves of Me”
Time is a way of preventing all things from happening at once.
—Andre Litovik, The Evolving Universe: Origin, Age & Fate
Decoding the mystery of the Mudwoman. Kevin Nance. The Washington Post, March 18, 2012, STYLE, p. T12
“It’s embarrassing almost to talk about, because it’s very different from the genesis and gestation of most of my novels,” Oates, 73, says in an interview from her home in Princeton, N.J. “I almost never write inspired by a dream vision. But in this dream, I saw a woman sitting at a large table wearing inappropriate, very heavy makeup that had dried, like mud, and was darker than her skin. I was so haunted by the image, and when I woke up I immediately started writing notes. It was presented to me as a great mystery that I had to decode and put in a context.”
Donna Seaman, Booklist, November 1, 2011
“In this extraordinarily intense, racking, and resonant novel, a giant among Oates’ ‘big’ books … chilling archetypal mysteries vie with ringing indictments of war, academic and corporate malfeasance, and environmental destruction. Masterfully enmeshing nightmare and reality, Oates has created a resolute, incisive, galvanizing drama about our deep connection to place, the persistence of the past, and the battles of a resilient soul under siege from within and without.”
Karen Brady, Buffalo News, March 11, 1012, p. F10
“‘Mudwoman’ is a book to bring us to our feet…”
Michael Prodger, Financial Times, March 10, 2012, Life & Arts, p. 14
“Mudwoman is a genuinely unsettling book in which Oates pays her readers the compliment of never letting them settle or even being entirely sure about what they have just read. For a young novelist, this kind of risk-taking would be admirable; for a 73-year-old with more than 50 novels to her name, it is extraordinary.”
Kate Saunders, The Times (London), March 10, 2012, Saturday Review, p. 16
“A chilling, beautifully written ghost story about the power of the past.”
Scotland on Sunday, March 13, 2012
“her most overtly political novel … It is both huge and small at the same time, close and expansive, personal and epic.”
W.M. Hagen, World Literature Today, March 2013
“Through the felt vividness of such moments, Oates opens readers to the ways people collide with the world, one another, and themselves. In this novel, Joyce Carol Oates continues to enlarge our range of perception, both of the people we might consider ‘them’ and of ourselves.”
Maria Russo, New York Times Book Review, April 1, 2012, p. 11
“Even as it travels over familiar Oates territory, there’s a freshness to this novel, a sense of some new, more personal beginning. It’s bold of Joyce Carol Oates to paint achievement akin to her own as just the flip side of victimization — and it’s perhaps even bolder to make such visceral drama from the story of a workaholic who finally confronts life unhooked from a keyboard.”
Ami Sands Brodoff, The Globe and Mail, May 16, 2012
“Mudwoman possesses the power of myth and fable, while offering the thrills and chills of macabre noir and grisly psychological horror: classic Oates. The border between a past self – no matter how desperate and degraded, and a successful, reinvented one – must be permeable.Mudwoman is about the reclamation of the self, in all of its earthy mire, just as the material of the mud-crawling caterpillar is reshaped within the chrysalis.”
Emma Hagestadt, Independent, October 26, 2012
“This is an intriguing and bold novel about the flip side of success, and the consequences of sexual and psychological violence on the female psyche.”
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.