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.

12 comments:

  1. This sounds like such a fascinating book... about as far from my experience here in Devon, in the UK, as it's possible to get. *Although* I've been to Memphis and seen the Mississippi there so I have at least seen the river. I should probably read some 'southern' books next year and it might even be possible to find this one.

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  2. Nan, tell your husband he did an enormous job with the book review! Makes me want to read it all over again! :D

    Now, if you guys ever get south, you must stay w/ hubby and I. We will show you the Delta and Faulkner's home. Happy b-lated T-Day! :D

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  3. Thanks, Tom for a great review. I enjoyed reading it - what a fascinating book and what an amazing river. I've only "seen" the Mississippi on Google Earth - I don't suppose I'll ever get there in person.

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  4. I was looking for a book for my dad..this sounds like it might be the one! Thanks Tom...

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  5. Wonderful book review! I am intrigued by the yogurt machine! The only ones I've seen make individual servings. Is is possible with this machine to use a yogurt you can purchase as a starter? And how is the consistancy? I prefer very thick yogurt.

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  6. Les sent me here because she thought I'd find this book interesting and, wow, what a fabulous review! I'd run out and buy it right now, if I had the time. I'm in Vicksburg, so if you guys are ever this way I'll take you to the Military Park and the Old Courthouse Museum after Maggie's done showing you the Delta and Faulkner's home - both of which are well worth the trip, btw.

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  7. Tom is just thrilled to have all your comments! Maybe they will encourage him to write more reviews. :<)

    Since he's not around right now, I'll respond to his comments.

    Cath, that's exactly like us - and wasn't it a thrill just to see it!

    Maggie, we are so touched, so delighted with your invitation. We truly hope to make that pilgrimage someday. We are huge Faulkner fans.

    Margaret, thank you for your kind words. It really is a fascinating book.

    Jeanie, we are both so pleased to think of giving you an idea for your dad!

    Tara, the yogurt machine is just great. I'm not sure about using a bought yogurt as a culture. We've only ever used the Yogourmet starter. And it is nice and thick!

    Bookfool, thank you for visiting. And for your kind invitation. I don't know how we can resist you and Maggie!

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  8. Oh, and Jeanie, your name is highlighted, and I'm wondering if that means you may be starting a blog? I sure hope so. Please let me know.

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  9. Nan, I did stop by to read your husband's review. This was so interesting b/c of the factual information. Olmstead in Cotton Kingdom wrote his book concentrating on the people, their demeanor and way of life. He did not forget who his reading public was via The New York Times. I too originate from New Engalnd (Connecticut) and have never ventured to the Southern states. After my reading of Battle Cry of Freedom ( Civil War 1861-1865) I yearn to visit the historical sites in Vrigina, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina etc...Maybe someday...

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    1. Gosh, I'm so pleased you came by to read it. I plan to show him what you wrote about your book, too. I would like to make that trip as well, mostly to Mississippi though to see Faulkner country. We are big F. fans.

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  10. Faulkner is an acquired taste. Ashamed to admit that I never read him, I buckeled down in 2008 and read The Sound and the Fury. It was a wild ride. To this day I am still amazed how Faulkner described in section 2 the course of events leading up to Quintin's suicide on June 2, 1910.
    I have put Faulkner on my Classics Book reading list because het is a genius not to be missed. My choice is "As I lay dying". If you have a good Faulkner suggestion please let me know. (Here is my classic book list, i have also put your link on my blog for easy access...)
    http://ipsofactodotme.wordpress.com/2012/03/22/70/

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    1. No shame at all. I know hardly anyone who has read him, and if they have, they didn't like his work. I keep meaning to reread the books I read when in my twenties. I've been away from him a lot of years.

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