Wednesday, October 24, 2007

High Cotton (copy)

In the morning, I hear it while ironing clothes. It is in the background while I take a shower. It gets louder when I take out the trash. It is still droning while I brush my teeth for bed at night. And with windows open, it lulls me to sleep as I try to read. At this time of the year, our little town is filled with a busy hum or ever-present mechanical sound, the cotton gin.


I will forever associate the sound with the autumnal season. It is my background music while raking leaves, picking pecans, and planting pansies. It comforts me as much as the cotton sweatshirt and blue jeans I wear as I perform these duties. It is chapter eight, “The Gin,” in Gerard Helferich’s new book High Cotton: Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta.

For most of today’s Americans the word cotton evokes comfort. The latest cotton advertisement flaunts runway models leaving the high-fashion stage for the front door, implying cotton is quality couture and everyday wear. Even before this ad, we strutted around proudly in, “The Fabric of Our Lives.”

How odd to discover this fluffy fiber needs a promotional campaign. Of course it is to fight against softer and cheaper manmade fabrics; regrettably, the plant had an image problem prior to synthetics. The association with back-breaking labor in ungodly heat and humidity for meager wages or bare-existence trade is how field workers from 1840s to 1970s felt. Three decades ago, cotton may have been king, but only for those already in the upper echelon of its business.

Through Helferich’s reporting, readers follow a modern day cotton farmer for a full year. His subject, Zack Killebrew, farms 1,700 acres outside the small town of Tchula, in the rich Mississippi Delta soil. One-thousand acres are for cotton the rest set aside for soybeans and corn. Some of Killebrew’s cotton acreage is prime two-inch-deep Delta soil known locally as ice-cream.

Helferich leads us through the first days of breaking the soil to the last hours on the loom. As if on a cotton tour, we step into Killebrew’s pick-up for the long day, where Helferich relates the history of each process we happen to arrive at. For instance, during the weeks of picking cotton Hurricane Katrina rolls through and Helferich sidesteps to tell us about the Great Flood of 1927. On this tour readers can expect side excursions to encompass slavery, sharecropping, pesticides, and the Civil Rights Movement as it pertains to Mississippi cotton.

It is a fascinating year filled with bright blue cotton seeds and white, arm-resting pick-up trucks. Lucky for me, I also have the pleasure of living in Mississippi during a time when cotton is more a democracy than a tyrant king.

19 comments:

Vidalia said...

Great review - I feel like I'm there. Your introductory paragraph put me right in Missippi. Really, really well written. I definitely enjoy nonfiction, and this is one to add. Thanks so much for letting us know about it!

Paul said...

Ah, King Cotton! This may be worth a look Maggie. Thank you darlin' !

tdn said...

The book sounds fascinating! And, I agree that this is a very well-written review. Thanks!

Deana said...

This really was a great review. I thought "the fabric of our lives" as soon as I saw the word cotton. Sounds like a good read.

Joy said...

Oh, Maggie...this sounds good. I loved the paragraphs you opened with. I think I'm going to put it on my list of possibilities for next year's Non-Fiction Five Challenge. :)

Sam Houston said...

That brought back memories for me, Maggie. As a teenager, I picked cotton with my cousins on my grandfather's Louisiana cotton farm. I can well remember dragging that sack behind me and how raw my fingers were at the end of the weekend. He paid us something like a buck a sack and we thought we were rich. I decided early on that I did not want to be a farmer. :-)

Maggie said...

Hello all! Thanks for the nice words!

I read a review in the NYT Book Review before actually reading the book and the reviewer panned it because the author didn't ask the tough questions. What tough questions!?! The reviewer wanted to know why Zack's wife of 30 yrs was divorcing him. What is life like for the hired help?

Um, the book is about cotton, modern day vs. back-in-day, not about personal problems. My hubby thought the reviewer crazy for even bringing up the marriage troubles.

Another reviewer thought he used worn sources for the history. Nothing new here,is what I think he/she said, but I thought it compact and relevant to the storyline. It's a book I feel comfortable giving to a college student (whet their appetite) to learn more, delve deeper.

Maggie said...

Hi Sam!
Sounds like you were rollin' in high cotton. You know, I would like to pick cotton for a day, have that experience, just to be able to empathize with others in my area. Wonder if back-braking tours such as picking cotton, paving roads, and tarring roofs will ever be in fashion. we have tourist willing to stay in shotgun houses in Clarksdale, MS.

Paul said...

Maggie I picked cotton when I was a boy in Texas and it was no picnic let me tell you. Hands and back took a beating. :-)

jenclair said...

Love the cover! We are, of course, cotton country, too, and while there are more and more soy bean and milo fields, cotton is still a familiar crop. Thanks for this review!

Diane said...

Great review, Maggie!

Nan - said...

I found you from a comment you left at A Garden Carried in the Pocket. I just emailed my library after reading your fantastic review. It was so interesting and so well written. There was a period in the 1970s when it was hard to get cotton clothes. In fact, the only place my husband could buy all cotton shirts was that bastion of tradition, Brooks Brothers. Then I believe the company B.D. Baggies came up with the idea (!) of wrinkly cotton being cool, and voila a new fashion trend. :<) I love cotton, and would really like to know more about it, and this book sounds just great. Thank you.

Maggie said...

Paul I'll take your word for it and leave the cotton picking woes alone.

Jenclair, isn't the cover lovely. I'm afraid if we lose out government subsidies we may see less and less of this familiar sight. Como cotton fathers are discouraging their cotton cubs from entering the business and in the next 30 years I forsee the fields as suburbs. :(

Thanks diane!

Maggie said...

Oops - foresee

Nan, I look forward to your thoughts on this book.

From the book I learned the English limited the import of American cotton and encouraged other lesser grades from India and Africa as a quality issue in favour of wool. The history only scratches the surface and may possibly have you iching for more. ;D

sage said...

This sounds like a great book! I'll have to check it out. I grew up in NC between the cotton area, there was cotton grown in the pre-depression days, then tobacco became king, now when I go home I see as many cotton fields as I do tobacco fields.

Maggie said...

Sage - Where I'm from the land is more valuable than tobacco. Most farmers have retired and sold out or passed down their farms. There are two houses on the land my grandfather willed to my brother and I. Because of the tradition of swapping farms between farmers, I can't think of any land which has owner tenants. Matter-of-fact, in May I noticed the last warehouse was gone. A building I remember them raising in the late 70s, and where I was mesmerized by all the baccy on tables as far as the eyes could see. 8-)

Anonymous said...

Maggie, My name is Margie, I am from Texas, and as a child that came from migrant workers, I can say that picking cotton was a life work for us, I remember it very well, I can almost see my mother coming down the cotton fields carrying a large basket filled with Tacos for us to eat, she knew that we could really get hungery pulling those 12 foot bags filled with cotton, at the end of the day, when we got home and shower and ready for a good evening dinner, we were so tired that we fall asleep in an instant and didn't have our dinner, but all in all we were happy, tho we had to work harder then others, I remember working picking cotton at a certain pace and my cousins and I would sing and pick and we enjoyed that, see I am a singer and if it was not thats I was picking cotton I would've learn to sing, every time that I put on some thats cotton, I feel proud that this cotton item that I am wearing was made with cotton, the cotton that I help to pick, back in the days of my wonder years...thank you...margie

Maggie said...

No, thank you Margie, for that story! And, I have to say, keep on singing. I'm not saying you are my grandmother's age, just that she would say exactly the same thing about singing. Singing passes the time for her whether in the factory or milling around the house. Singing can be as comforting as cotton. :D

Nan - said...

I just wanted to let you know my husband did a book review of High Cotton over on my blog.