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4.3 3
by Christopher Wilson

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Lee Cotton is a black boy born white-skinned in segre­gated Eureka, Mississippi, in 1950. Over the course of Lee’s first twenty years, he will fall in love with the daughter of a local Klansman, get kicked senseless and left for dead on a freight train headed north, end up in St. Louis as a white man, and be drafted into the psych-ops corps in Nevada.


Lee Cotton is a black boy born white-skinned in segre­gated Eureka, Mississippi, in 1950. Over the course of Lee’s first twenty years, he will fall in love with the daughter of a local Klansman, get kicked senseless and left for dead on a freight train headed north, end up in St. Louis as a white man, and be drafted into the psych-ops corps in Nevada. There, a drunken accident will separate Lee from another part of his identity and change his fate yet again. Before he returns to Mississippi, he will experience up close and personal the women’s liberation movement and the dawn of the Lesbian Nation.

Lee Cotton’s voice—equal parts Delta Blues and Motown—takes us on an exhilarating freedom ride through America’s preoccupation with identity politics. His funny, forgiving charm ultimately embodies a serious message: The freaks and oddities of this world may well be divine.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Huck Finn meets Myra Breckinridge? Candide meets Yossarian? . . . [Lee Cotton] is, paradoxically, a complete original."--TheWashington Post Book World

"[Wilson's ] sense of humor and snappy pacing make this an appealing tale of a bygone America where truly anything can happen."--Allison Lynn, People

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Forrest Gump has nothing on Lee Cotton, the charismatic protagonist of Wilson's second novel, whose exploits provide a humorous, clever, and provocative look at 20th-century America.

Mississippi, 1950. Lee is born a black baby with milky white skin, the result of a dalliance between his black mother and an Icelandic seaman. The local reverend surmises that Lee is God's way of showing "that He's got himself an Almighty sense of humor," but Lee's strange appearance is just one of the ways in which he fails to conform to the world around him. For Lee has a gift of hearing other people's thoughts that also sets him apart -- and gets him into plenty of trouble when he repeats those thoughts aloud. Lee's confounding presence causes ripples of tension everywhere he goes: Where should he go to school? Where should he sit on the bus? And whom is he supposed to date? It even leads to a run-in with Klan members that will set Lee on a course that leads to undreamed-of challenges.

Like nothing you've read before, Cotton is a big, rollicking novel, introducing a unique and highly sympathetic character who comes face-to-face with the politics of segregation, the Vietnam War, and the women's movement. (Holiday 2005 Selection)
Jeff Turrentine
Cotton , a new novel by the British writer Christopher Wilson, delights in dialectics. Its eponymous main character resides in that poorly mapped territory between black and white, male and female, straight and gay, cultured and rustic. And because his highly unusual life takes place in America during the tumultuous third quarter of the 20th century -- a span of time that saw the Civil Rights Act, The Feminine Mystique and the Stonewall riots -- you can bet that the author has a few things to say about the messy manner in which America processes its conflicts.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Wilson's winning 20th-century picaresque wanders from the Deep South to the Midwest and on to San Francisco, following its protagonist through multiple and surprising identities. If the locales exude a faint whiff of familiarity, Lee Cotton, the book's shape-shifting main character, has a body (and a mind) that keeps things interesting. Beginning life as a "black soul in a white wrapper," Lee leaves Mississippi after a horrific beating at the hand of a local racist. He passes for white in St. Louis, getting work as a hospital orderly. But fate has more changes in store. A freak accident and doctoring by an "offbeat" surgeon have him embark on a new life as a woman... and then Lee's skin starts to darken. Wilson (Mischief) offers readers both a sharp-eyed, amusing ramble through America from the 1950s to the '70s and a critique of exclusionary identity politics. As Lee tells a heckler late in the book, "All my life I been hounded for being born the wrong color, or the wrong sex, or dating the wrong person, or living in the wrong place. We ain't what we're born. We're what we do with ourselves." Though marred by a somewhat hokey ending, this book is nevertheless very funny, profoundly endearing and highly memorable. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
London-based Wilson's U.S. debut (he was short-listed for the Whitebread Award for Mischief) takes a fanciful and sometimes graphic look at 20th-century American culture as seen through the eyes of a Southern black boy named Lee Cotton, who is born with white skin and is able to hear people's thoughts. Cotton grows up and falls in love with Angelina, the daughter of a Ku Klux Klansman, who beats Cotton nearly to death after discovering their affair. After being found on a freight train in the Midwest, Cotton is brought back to life, only to have his penis severed in a freak auto accident. Under the care of a renegade surgeon, Cotton is transformed into a glamorous woman and finds work as a model in San Francisco, where he falls in love with a female investigative reporter who helps him reunite with his family and confront Angelina's father. During these dramatic episodes, Cotton's skin color darkens, and he discovers feathers protruding from his back, which forces him to conclude, "We ain't what we're born. We're what we do with ourselves." This whimsical tale, filled with highly entertaining puns and innuendos, explores race, gender, and sexual stereotypes through an unusual set of characters and bizarre circumstances. Recommended for all collections.-David A. Berone, Univ. of New Hampshire Lib., Durham Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Before he is 30, Lee Cotton experiences life as a black boy, a white man, a white woman, and a black woman. The son of a black woman and a white Icelandic sailor, he was born in 1950 in Eureka, MS. White skin and blond hair notwithstanding, he was raised to know his place in the world. When he has a relationship with the daughter of a local bigot at age 15, he is beaten up by the Ku Klux Klan and left for dead. The staff at the St. Louis hospital to which he is transferred knows him only as a brain-damaged John Doe, and he gets his first taste of life as a white person. His memory returns just in time to be drafted for the Vietnam War. A car accident and misplaced whiskey bottle result in a sex-change operation by a disbarred physician, and, after several years as a white woman, his genes catch up with him and his skin slowly darkens. Farfetched though the plot may be, Wilson writes with an easy grace and humor that make Lee a thoroughly delightful protagonist. The author paints such a compelling picture of the South in the mid-20th century that it is hard to believe that he is British. In introducing Lee, he does far more than spin an irresistible tragicomedy that combines history with flights of fancy-he challenges us to look at what truly defines us if it is not our race, gender, or socioeconomic status.-Kim Dare, Fairfax County Public Library System, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A picaresque odyssey about a shape-shifter-a kind of goofy Orlando-who embodies the upheaval of three decades. Leifur Nils Kristjansson St. Marie du Cotton is born in the mid-20th century to a black mother and a globe-trotting Icelander. This Nordic oddity is raised in a Delta dirt-farm setting that recalls Steve Martin's The Jerk. He falls in love with Angelina, the daughter of a racist, and joins voting drives and civil-rights marches. From his New Orleans aristocratic grandmother, Celeste, he inherits the ability to read minds. The narrator is beguiling, and the contortionist linguistic feats performed by this southern-fried, neurologically challenged savant are riveting. Ambushed by his paramour's father and the latter's Klan cohorts, he is left for dead, his battered body dumped on a freight car and shipped north. Rescued by a St. Louis brain surgeon, he takes on a new identity, Lee McCoy, white man. After being drafted, he is assigned to a special unit called the Beige Berets, dedicated to psychological warfare through telepathy. A clairvoyant buddy, Ethan, slips him some sports results that will secure Lee's financial future. But when a car accident damages his penis, he undergoes surgery and, courtesy of the defrocked but talented renegade Doc Gene, becomes a woman. From there, the only logical destination is San Francisco, where Lee is adopted by a teahouse coven of radical lesbian feminists who reject her when they learn she's a porn starlet. Then it's love and domesticity with a mousy journalist covering the Patty Hearst brouhaha. At some point the narrator's skin darkens naturally as a result of estrogen treatment, and there is a final reckoning with mentors and tormentorsalike. A bit of Touched By an Angel sanctimony near the end scarcely dampens the antic entertainment offered here.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Eureka, Mississippi

When I finally slither out mewling, I've already given Mama hard labor, because she's been cussing and screaming seventeen hours. Then there's a calm until she sees me. Then she starts howling worse. And even though I come by the customary channel, and she feels me struggling out for sure, and we're tied by an umbilical, still she swears I'm not her child and she's not my mother, and what in God's name is going to become of us? On account of my crazy, scary looks, because I just don't present to the eye like a black baby should.

Word spreads round the homestead. Folks gather in huddles, whispering about the strange deliverance. Some say fetch the doctor, and some say the veterinarian's cheaper, but in the end my uncle Nat rouses the Reverend Eugene Spinks for some theology because this baby ain't so much a medical issue as a rude package of life delivered in error to the wrong address, an ugly curse or strange blessing-a secret code written in skin. Besides, doctor is white and charges travel and labor, while the reverend is black and free and always comes willing and wordy whether he's needed or not, with Christ's answer for anything. After he inspects me all round, top and tail, and lets me suck on his finger, Reverend Spinks confers with my mama. He keeps his questions brisk, blunt, and worldly. He leaves no mattress unturned, he asks plenty personal, and he doesn't spare her modesty. Then he hears enough and he turns on his heels.

"Healthy, normal boy," he booms, bounding down the sprung porch steps beaming. "Eight pounds odd. Sound specimen. Praise the Lord."

"How about his looks?" folks ask.

"Happens. As we sow, so shall we reap"-the Reverend smiles-"and Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse. This child comes to answer some purpose. Almighty always got his reasons."

"What's this child come to show us?"

"Can't speak for the Lord exactly," concedes the Reverend Spinks. "But never forget He's got himself an Almighty sense of humor."

Eureka, Mississippi, where I got raised, is God's Own Place to grow cotton and stubborn, hardy trees. Clement Creek cradles the tallest cedars in the state. The nearby town of Briar prides itself as the pine capital of the South.

The folk are knotty and resinous too. They sink deep roots. They can handle heat, dust, and drought. Needles fare better than leaves.

Nowadays there's a Eureka community website. The History page says Eureka has no available history. The Community Information page announces The community has no information to share. The Links page has no links. The Contact Us page gives a box number in Hannibal, Missouri. The Welcome link leads nowhere.

That's Eureka folk. They keep things buttoned up, close to their chests. They can handle progress if it doesn't change things. They welcome any strangers who belong. If you come asking questions, they'll tell as much as they need you to know.

Highway 28 crosses the tracks. To the north are Clement Street and Front Street. They started to build Franklin Boulevard, but it ran out of tarmac and self-belief after thirty yards. To the south is South Clement Street and Back Street. They got most things most people need-a grocery store, three churches (black Baptist, white Baptist, and never-mind-your-color-pass-the-snakes), two diners, a gas station, a sheriff. And if you find yourself in need of a newspaper, tractor tire, haircut, high school, or hospital, you can drive to nearby Briar in less than twenty minutes.

You can see the heat shimmer off the tarmac, hear the rattle of teal, the whining blades at the sawmill, and a bad-transmission Studebaker pickup. You can smell pine resin, sawdust, and hog pens. But the blue sky and cotton horizon look hazy-clear.

Of course they got plenty history-far more than they care to remember or use. Most of it centers round cattle, cotton, and cars. We had some levitations too. Maybe we lie on some fault line of gravity, because we got problems keeping things tidy on the horizon, splitting the ground from the sky. Things sometimes fall upward, and things come down that got no business being up to start. You'll likely think it sounds fanciful. Take it or leave it. You got to experience it firsthand.

But it's the small personal events that stick in the mind. Like the time Lou Carey shoots his Chevy Apache 427 CU automatic outside the Magnolia Diner, once through each headlight, twice through the radiator, and three times through the windshield, and then leaves the corpse to rust and rot by the curbside as a public warning to bad-attitude trucks, which sounds a mean and cranky thing to do, but Eureka folk always got sound reasons, and that's the trouble with history, serving it up cold and stale on the plate, when it needs to be savored fresh and hot.

One month in '57, farmers found their cows gutted or headless in the morning. There'd been buzzing sounds and neon flashes in the night sky. They were awful dazzling lights, of color folks never seen before. Some blamed aliens and some blamed the military. And it was God's own task to recover the loss from the Yankee insurers, who sent down an Italian investigator with an attaché case, homburg hat, horn-rimmed glasses, and a stammer to try get to the bottom of it. But something spooked him into leaving early, after only seven twitchy hours.

There was Elliot Holly, a black kid out of Detroit, who came to stay with kin in Eureka in the summer of '59, but got his neck broke for making repeated personal suggestions to a white girl serving in the grocery store, not knowing the difference between city and small-town manners, black and white.

And it's hard to look at any of the telephone poles down Highway 28 without wondering who's dangled there, besides that boozed-up kid out of Vicksburg who got tossed out of his V-8 Mustang convertible (cherry red, auto, discs, and power hood with pony trim) onto the telephone wires when he drove himself straight into the post of the EUREKA WELCOMES CAREFUL DRIVERS sign at eighty miles an hour.

They got themselves famous sons too-Red McKee, who played tight end for the Dolphins, season '61 through to '63, and Larry Whitters, who played session music in Nashville, backing Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and sundry other immortals from the Hall of Fame.

And they never forget their famous daughter, Angelina Clement, who just happened to be a close, personal childhood friend of mine.

Copyright © Christopher Wilson 2005

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

CHRISTOPHER WILSON earned his Ph.D. in humor and works as a consulting semiotician. His first novel, Mischief, was short-listed for the Whitbread Award. He lives in London.

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Cotton 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Pitrich More than 1 year ago
This book will blow your mind. It's a "trip" that's all can say. Great story , very original , a one of a kind.
brownsugabookluva More than 1 year ago
i am truly torn. i have a very vivid imagination. i can appreciate all kinds of books and stories and i was actually enjoying this book up until page 171...there are 314 pages in this book, but on page 171 wilson completely lost me. and it goes downhill from there. i can believe in the make believe. i can enjoy fantasy but this is just absurd. throughout the book the main character seems to have no human reaction to anything that happens in his tormented life...he just accepts what he's dealt and keeps on moving. i was also annoyed by the fact Lee keeps chasing his first love who couldn't care less about him. and to top it all off then he grows feathers. come on?! the book is funny at times but i must admit, the only reason i kept reading after page 171 is because i have to finish a book once i start it. i wouldn't recommend this book at all. if you like ficiton and don't mind letting your imagination run wild, read LIFE OF PI. it's a book where the events that take place couldn't possibly happen in real life but you'll enjoy every minute of it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would have liked to give this book 5 stars but it really let me down in the last half of the book. It did recover towards the end but not as strong as it began. Left me feeling like it should have been better. Empty inside.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Having read few of the reviews prior to picking up the book, I was met with surprise after surprise. The book is a thrilling journey in Lee's life. I came back to read the reviews after finishing the book and they do give away some of the surprises. The book is an fascinating meditation on race, gender and sexuality. More than you expect.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Cotton was a book that caught my eye at the book store and I really enjoyed reading it. I liked the quirky twists and turns. The book me to places that I wouldn't have imagined. It has a humorous thread yet confronts some serious issues at the same time. You won't be disappointed.