Friday, November 23, 2007
Book Report/High Cotton, 2007
You may recall back in the summer, Tom was a guest commentator on the blog, talking about yogurt. Well, today he is back! This time with a book report. A while ago I read a great book review of High Cotton on Maggie's blog. I got the book from the library, and as soon as I began to read I knew this was a book Tom would simply love. Well, he did love it, and has just finished. I gently urged him to write a book report and he did.
I’ve just finished reading High Cotton by Gerard Helferich. I probably never would have picked up a book on cotton growing or the cotton industry, but the book is set in the Mississippi River Delta, a region that has always fascinated me. Flat, rural, and sparsely populated, this is what I think of when I imagine Mississippi. The closest I’ve gotten to Mississippi is Memphis, Tennessee, but I have a vivid picture of the state thanks to William Faulkner. And while Faulkner’s Mississippi is quite a bit more dramatic, even gothic, than the happenings in High Cotton, the landscape is no less evocative in Helferich’s book of one cotton farmer’s year in the growing of his main crop.
For those of us not from the South, the Delta in this book is not at the mouth of the great river, but the region east of the Mississippi from roughly Memphis in the north to Vicksburg in the south. The author refers to this area in the prologue as “the most southern place on earth,” from the title of James Cobb’s history of the Delta. Helferich follows Zack Killebrew over the course of an entire year as he thinks about, plants, grows, tends and then harvests his cotton, along with smaller crops of corn and soybeans. As we learn about Zack’s trials as a cotton farmer (and he does think of himself as a cotton farmer even though he grows other crops) we become engaged in the seasonal rituals and realities of the Delta’s cotton economy. Zack is only one of many growers “who still risk everything to raise this ancient and essential crop.”
We learn some amazing facts about the Mississippi River, the source of the region’s fertility: the river at rest carries half a million cubic feet and five tons of silt into the Gulf of Mexico every second; topsoil is measured not in inches (as it is here in northern New England) but in dozens of feet; the great flood of 1927 left a region of the Delta thirty miles wide and a hundred miles long under as much as thirty feet of water. We also learn about hunting and fishing—during bobcat season the limit is five a day, and May 1 to July 15 is the season for hand-grabbing catfish.
But the center of the book is Zack and cotton. Helferich informs us about plowing, seeds, machinery, weather, drought, and irrigation; there are so many ways all this can go wrong it’s a miracle any cotton is grown at all. We also read about the growth of agribusiness, and the processing and sale of cotton. The end of the season has everyone waiting through the exhausting days of harvest—“from can ‘til can’t”—to see if they have picked enough cotton to remain in business for another year. So, sadly, the author also writes about the state of Mississippi exploring other ways for the region to remain viable.