Cotton Song [NOOK Book]


In World War II–era Mississippi, the aftermath of a tragedy takes on all the intensity and heat of the Delta summer when the town of Ruleton copes with violence, racism, and a vengeful spree that threatens the life of a young girl and the soul of the small town.

In Hushpuckashaw County in the 1940s, many things are desperately unfair. Letitia Johnson, a young black mother and the nanny for one of the town’s most distinguished couples, knows ...
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Cotton Song

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In World War II–era Mississippi, the aftermath of a tragedy takes on all the intensity and heat of the Delta summer when the town of Ruleton copes with violence, racism, and a vengeful spree that threatens the life of a young girl and the soul of the small town.

In Hushpuckashaw County in the 1940s, many things are desperately unfair. Letitia Johnson, a young black mother and the nanny for one of the town’s most distinguished couples, knows this only too well when the couple’s baby is found drowned in its bath. Accused by the grieving family and the enraged townspeople, Letitia quickly sends her twelve-year-old daughter, Sally, out to hide in the brush before she is taken into custody. The angry mob would get revenge when they drag Letitia from her jail cell and hang her that very night. But they wouldn’t get Sally.

Baby Allen, a courageous social worker, is assigned to Sally’s case, and gradually coaxes the young girl out of hiding, wins her trust, and secures her protection. But once Sally is safe, Baby is left with the greater mission of uncovering the truth about who is responsible for the infant’s death—a shocking revelation that will change the ways and attitudes of a town that has been long in need of changing.

Beautiful and gripping, Cotton Song is the story of a woman’s fight to save the child left behind after the horrific lynching that took her mother’s life.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his haunting second novel (after The Grace That Keeps This World), Bailey presents a vicious history of race relations in his home state. Set in fictionalized Hushpuckashaw County, Miss., in 1944, the novel opens just after the lynching death of Letitia Johnson, a black nanny accused of drowning her young charge. Letitia's 12-year-old daughter, Sally Johnson, becomes a ward of the state, and her case file lands on social worker Baby Allen's desk. Baby takes in Sally, and while hiding the girl from the Klan, she finds an unlikely ally in Jake Lemaster, the one-time college football hero who is now second-in-command to his father, Boss Chief, at Parchman Farm, the state's infamous penitentiary where Sally's father is serving time for stabbing a man during a gambling dispute. Jake's progressive politics and clashes with his father over prison reform, compounded by Jake's and Baby's quest to discover who is really responsible for the drowning, come to a violent head during one brutally hot July week. With its heels set firmly in the Southern gothic tradition (scenes involving torture, necrophilia and grisly deaths), the novel depicts a sun-scorched landscape where prospects for justice are as wilted as the cotton plants that stud the dusty ground. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Trembling earnestness almost redeems the turgid prose and superabundance of stock characters in this murder mystery that strains hard for mythic import and Deep Meaning. Hushpuckashaw County, Miss., is hell. And Bailey (The Grace That Keeps This World, 2005, etc.) stokes the fire relentlessly. There's been a demonic crime: Drowned in the bath one Friday morning is the baby girl of Sissy Rule Tisdale, daughter of the backwater's leading family. And the punishment is yet more heinous: Letitia Johnson, the Rules's long-trusted nanny, is lynched, then tarred and set on fire. Into the aftermath arrives Baby Allen, a social worker entrusted to find a foster home for Letitia's hapless daughter, a 12-year-old fearing the eye-for-an-eye wrath of vigilantes headed up by the nefarious Calvin McGales. He's captain of Camp 5 of Parchman Farm, the state's bleakest prison. Mr. Boss Chief Lemaster, more or less Satan incarnate, runs the inferno. His boy, Jake, betrays occasional decency, even while skulking in the shadows, afraid to cross his social-climbing, doll-perfect missus. Jake has his hands full when Bigger, Letitia's lover and a hulking Parchman presence, stabs a prison guard, committing the grossest act of all: Black con offs white cop. Soon enough, Baby's and Jake's paths intersect-she desperate for info that'll clear Letitia (hint: Sissy's mom is fairly unhinged), he desperate that Parchman not become a riot scene. In subplot after subplot, Bailey piles on the aw-shucks dialogue while hoeing the same row that Harper Lee and Earnest Gaines did so much better. Ultimately, Jake is martyred; Baby is vindicated; Letitia's daughter herself becomes a social worker. Tiresome, by-the-numbers Southernfiction-an odd combination of the overheated and boring.
From the Publisher
“Tom Bailey’s riveting and thought-provoking second novel, Cotton Song, zeroes in on a small town in Mississippi during the summer of 1944. Bailey’s novel succeeds on several levels: as a Faulkner-esque tale of empathetic but alienated characters, as an indictment of human brutality and as a litany of the South’s struggle to come to terms with the racial strife of its not-too-distant past.” – Booklist

“In his haunting second novel, Bailey presents a vicious history of race relations in his home state. With its heels firmly in the Southern gothic tradition, the novel depicts a sun-scorched landscape where prospects for justice are as wilted as the cotton plants that stud the dusty ground.” – Publishers Weekly

Cotton Song is lifted from the pedestrian by style, by bringing a different perspective to what in less skilled hands would be merely repetitive and shallow. Bailey, like the Mississippians he revered as a child, unwinds a story wrapped in the dialect and mannerisms of the region and drives it to a dramatic close.”
The Biloxi Sun Herald
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307494634
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/21/2009
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

TOM BAILEY was born in the Mississippi Delta. Growing up, he lived in North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, and West Virginia. The author of the novel The Grace That Keeps This World and a collection of short stories, Crow Man, as well as A Short Story Writer’s Companion, and the editor of On Writing Short Stories, he has received a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, a Newhouse Award from the John Gardner Foundation, and the 2006 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction. Tom Bailey teaches in the creative writing program at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and three children.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

Cotton Song

A Novel
By Tom Bailey

Shaye Areheart Books

Copyright © 2006 Tom Bailey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 140008332X

The road to Ruleton ran dry and dusty. Baby Allen negotiated the ancient Model T as best she could, the loose gravel sliding her tires side to side as if she were skating on ice. Though it was shy of 10:00 a.m. the Mississippi Delta heat already wavered in gaseous, evil-looking shimmerings before her, ghosting the cotton fields that stretched to either side of the straight two-lane divide of U.S. Highway 49. On the horizon the sun squatted--the bloody yolk of a fat, frying orb.

The story of Letitia Johnson's lynching plastered the front page of the Monday, July 17, 1944, edition of the Hushpuckashaw County Tocsin that lay on the seat beside Baby, beating out the usual headline designated to naming the local soldiers fighting overseas who'd been chosen for the Hushpuckashaw County Victory Valiants and the quotes for farm prices, not to mention the "11 Musts for Peace Given to Business by the U.S. Chamber" carried by the AP wire, and the war news of Montgomery's attack on Gain, below Caen.

Letitia Johnson had worked as the mammy for the Rules, the founding family of Ruleton. The baby girl of the youngest daughter, Sissy Rule Tisdale, had been found drowned to death in the bathtub of their home Friday morning. Sheriff Dodd had arrested Letitia Johnson on suspicion of infanticide that same afternoon, but before she could even be indicted for the crime she'd been swept awayby a mob and hung. Her body had been tarred and then set on fire. It burned all night and into the next day. Such acts of vigilantism, rampant before the 1930s, had grown almost rare since the state had bought a new portable electric chair, which could be transported to perform executions in the county where the crime had been committed, but Letitia Johnson's grievous act, the paper's publisher, L. B. Ware, wrote in an accompanying editorial, had been so heinous as to "earn the support of the God-fearing public for what had been done to her, though we may be against the gruesome public hangings that have beleaguered the good name of the state of Mississippi in the recent past, must be able to entrust the care of our most valuable treasure, our children, the heirs of all we hold precious in this world, to the aunties who raised us all."

The article did not point out that Letitia Johnson had been the mother of a girl herself, a twelve-year-old daughter. Now that child was orphaned. Mr. Brumsfield, the director at the welfare, had laid the responsibility of her file on Baby's desk. As a county agent, it was that orphaned girl, Sally Johnson, whom Baby was driving to Ruleton to find.

On the north side of the hamlet of Boyer, halfway between Eureka and Ruleton, she was forced to slow before a cloud of dust that signaled the long line of a chain gang working with picks and shovels to smooth and grade that stretch of the bumpy highway. The convicts wore pants and shirts rung around with horizontal black and white stripes, yellowed with sweat. All the prisoners held at the state penitentiary, better known as Parchman Farm, were busy serving years of hard labor for the profit of the state. The majority of the men worked off their crimes at toil chopping cotton on the twenty-two thousand acres of fields that made up the old plantation-style "farm," but a few work gangs like this one were contracted out to labor for the railroad or public works. Leg irons dragged behind them, and their faces were dripping wet. All eighty or so men at work swinging their picks and shoveling rock were Negroes. The six men guarding them were Negroes, too, convicts as well. As an officer of the newly mandated parole system that had fallen under the auspices of the welfare in Hushpuckashaw County, Baby had come to recognize these men as trusties. Handpicked to carry guns by the sergeant who ran each work camp, they stood at a distinct remove from their fellow prisoners, called gunmen, who worked within range of their aim--the levered rifles or double-barreled shotguns the trusties carried trained directly on them. All the while, the sergeant strode up and down the line, driving them, while a squat, barrel-chested convict wearing a striped prison cap like a grinder monkey's shouted out the chant that paced the rise and fall of their picks. Baby rolled to a stop, elbow on the edge of the open window, and leaned her head on her hand at the delay. The swell of the man's big voice and the chorus of the call thundered back from every convict on the line, all at once, and with the gathered umph! and the ringing strike of their picks.

Ridin' in a hurry.

Great Godamighty!

Ridin' like he's angry.

Great Godamighty!

Well, I wonder whut's de matter?

Great Godamighty!

Bull whip in one han', cowhide in de udder.

Baby climbed out to look for the overseer. A dark-green state car sat tipped at the angle of the ditch in the lane facing her, but no one was in it. She shaded her eyes with her hand. Before her, in the first of the three cotton trucks that had been used to transport the convicts, she spotted khaki trousers attached to a pair of boots sticking out the window of the opened front door, heels crossed. The boots showed dusty brown, the soles squashed hard to the outsides. Baby ducked back in the car and pulled up beside the first truck. She had to lean across the newspaper that was faceup on the passenger seat to see up into the cab.

"Excuse me. Sir?"

When the man sat up from his nap, wearing dark sunglasses, pushing back at his hat, Baby recognized Jake Lemaster, Boss Chief's son. Boss Chief was the appellation of authority granted the superintendent of Parchman Farm, and though Jake Lemaster hadn't been branded with such an omnipotent-sounding title at the prison yet, which Baby took as a good sign, he did have the reputation of being his daddy's right-hand man. This was ironic, seeing as how Jake Lemaster was a one-armed man himself.

"I hate to disturb your sleep, Mr. Lemaster. But some of us have work to do this morning. I'd like to pass by, if you don't mind."

Jake Lemaster peeled off his sunglasses and thumbed the sleep from his eyes. "Morning to you, Mrs. Allen. Thought I recognized that dusty old car. I wasn't sleeping exactly, just resting my eyes. And how is our local angel of mercy today? On dove's wings to do some good up our end of the county, I hope."

Even for a Mississippian born and bred, Jake Lemaster had a heavy accent, which he slathered on country thick, sliding in extra syllables to ease his drawl, his vowels full, and consonants with the edges rounded off. His "morning" sounded like "ma-haw-nin," "car" like "ca-ah." He was still thin and youngish, though not exactly young anymore, certainly no boy, although there was still something boyish about him. He wore his rust-red hair unusually long, curling out from under the back of his hat, and he remained tall, broad-shouldered. His fabled freckled left passing arm looked hard beneath the short-sleeve shirt of his khaki uniform, but she could see a little pooch over his belt the way he sat hunched in the truck with his legs bowed out--a drawn pistol, she saw then, resting in his lap--and he had hard lines drawn down at the edges of his mouth.

Baby had met Jake Lemaster's father, Boss Chief, exactly once, on her first visit to the prison. Boss Chief sat tipped back behind his big desk in the living-room-sized office of the Victorian mansion, called First Home at Front Camp, where he lived and which served as the administrative center for the prison. When she'd been escorted into the room, he'd run his yellow eyes up and down her body, from her legs to her breasts to her face and then back to her breasts and legs and face, before settling on her hips, never meeting her eyes. While she spoke, informing him of the state's new parole law and what her job would be on her visits to Parchman Farm, he pivoted his chair to stare out the window, his thick fingers steepled before him. Nor did he venture to say one word to her during their entire interview except to acknowledge its conclusion by barking his son into the room. Boss Chief mumbled in his growl of a voice to his son, with an accent so guttural and marble-mouthed that she hadn't understood one word. But Jake had. He said, "Yes, sir, Mr. Boss Chief." With that, Boss Chief had apparently washed his hands of her, turning over to Jake the responsibility of dealing with "that woman from the Welfare Department" whenever she made her visits to see the convicts.

The fact Baby remained sharply aware of was that Boss Chief was not a professional penologist--nor had the governor appointed him to act like one. Convicts were sent to Parchman to be punished for their crimes. At Parchman no distinction was made between ax murderers and thieves. The cages, as the dormitories in each work camp were called, had no individual cells. Hardened fifty-year-old incorrigibles slept side by side with fifteen-year-old first-time offenders. A mental incompetent was not separated by the state. Insanity was not recognized as a defense for committing a crime--a crime was a crime. All the prisoners at Parchman were treated the same: the common denominator simply that they had all been convicted as guilty. Reform was not the state's goal. Boss Chief had been hired years ago because he was a proven old-style plantation farmer of the first rank. His qualifications proved he could grow cotton on an immense scale. He could "handle niggers." Boss Chief ran Parchman as if the convicts were slaves in antebellum times and he was their "Marse"--except if a convict died there was no loss for Boss Chief. Judges from around the state sent the fodder of new labor Boss Chief's way every day in droves, hauled in from the town and county jails by the white man feared far and wide as Long Chain Charlie. There seemed no end to the number of men--and women, too--who shot and knifed and did personal injury and bodily harm and stole. So there was no real incentive for Boss Chief to keep the prisoners alive or even well. As a parole officer for the state, Baby had met men who'd killed and who had been killed, who were simply no longer available to talk to her when she went back for their next interview. As a home visitor for the state, she came to know their families equally well while they served their time in jail.

It was on one of these visits to Parchman Farm that Baby had worked up the temerity to ask Jake exactly what had happened to his right arm. She'd heard the common rumor that he'd lost it in some sort of farm accident. He told her he'd fallen off the back of a tractor when he was a boy. He said he was lucky the trailing disk hadn't diced him to ribbons. The mangled arm had been sawn off neatly above the elbow. Fortunately, he still had full use of the stub, which he'd become adept at using like a flipper. And though Baby was sure the loss of the hand and forearm had cost Jake Lemaster in more ways than she could imagine, she also knew that as a young man he'd shown the determination to overcome such a crippling. He'd risen to play tailback in the single wing for the University of Mississippi's championship-bid football team of 1935--the squad that had taken Ole Miss to its first bowl game. Baby didn't follow football, but everyone else in the Delta seemed to. She happened to remember the facts because everyone had so bemoaned the 20-19 Orange Bowl loss to Catholic University. Still, 1935 had been a great year for the great state of Mississippi, people said. And Jake Lemaster was still remembered for the all-American-honors-winning part he'd played in it. For many, Baby knew, "Red" Lemaster would always remain the fiery-haired, one-armed captain of the Rebels who'd been praised by sportswriters for his speed and quick wit--Jake Lemaster was a regular red fox they said--and the color of his hair had forever sealed their nickname for him.

"Thank you for asking, Mr. Lemaster. Your local angel of mercy is just fine this morning. Though I'd venture to say it feels more like afternoon."

"Yes, ma'am," he said. "It surely does. 'Cepting it's going to get hotter 'fore it gets cooler. You can take that to the bank. Who we visiting this morning? You heading Parchman way? Daddy didn't say anything to me. We expecting you?"

"Not today, Mr. Lemaster. I'm on my way up to Ruleton. I have an orphaned girl to see." And then Baby just said it--usually she wouldn't have even disclosed that it was an orphan she was going to visit. That was official welfare business. She didn't know why she said it or why in heaven's name she would say it to Jake Lemaster, the Boss Chief's son, of all people. She couldn't keep the anger and bitterness out of her voice either: "Letitia Johnson's daughter. You may have read about her mama, Mr. Lemaster." She waved angrily down at the newspaper on the seat between them.

Jake Lemaster absorbed her tone and the information with a straight face, looking directly back at her, the blacked glasses blanking his expression.

"Now that you mention it, I did hear something about that," he said slowly. "Truth be told, Mrs. Allen, that's all I been hearing about for three days now. Would you believe, Mrs. Allen, that there are Christians in Hushpuckashaw County who still stake their faith on the rock of the Old Testament belief of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? The murder of the murderer for such Christians isn't enough it seems. Justice must be done. If a child died, such Christians believe, a child's life has got to be paid. They believe that's the only way to even the scales and set things straight."

Baby looked carefully back at him. She nodded slowly, believing she'd heard what Jake Lemaster was trying to tell her--Letitia Johnson's daughter was in danger. This horridness wasn't over yet. Since Baby had heard about the lynching of Letitia Johnson she'd felt a lot of things, but this was the first time she'd felt the rush of fear. "I want to thank you for this confidence, Mr. Lemaster."

When she said that, Jake Lemaster's face changed again. He leaned forward and tipped down his glasses to look at her with his sky-blue eyes. He stretched a flat smile.


Excerpted from Cotton Song by Tom Bailey Copyright © 2006 by Tom Bailey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Reading Group Guide


1) Discuss the recurring appearance of the red fox at Letitia’s house. Why is the fox associated with this location? Why does the author include such gory details of this same fox collecting the remains of Baby’s unborn child?

2) What do you think of Sissy Rule Tisdale? Is she a sympathetic character? Why do you think the rest of the Rule family seems so absent from her life?

3) What do you think really happened the night Dorothy Tisdale died?

4) Discuss Boss Chief’s philosophy of right and wrong. Whose rules does he follow? How does he see his role as head of Parchman Farm? What factors influenced his chosen path?

5) What, if anything, is the significance of the song lyrics throughout the book? Did you find them meaningful?

6) Discuss the contrast between Alley Leech, whose crimes and general behavior define a villainous man, and Bigger, of whom we hear reports only of kindness and nobility. Why does the author contrast these two characters so vividly? Do you think his point is overstated? How do these extremes of character serve the story?

7) Everything we know of Jake and Jolene’s relationship indicates that his careless and sometimes neglectful attitude toward her and her wishes is habitual. Why does she put up with it?

8) Boss Chief says of his late wife, “I might even’ve been a different man with her at my side.” What kind of man might he have been? What sort of regrets, if any, do you think this statement implies?

9) Do you think Jake would have made a good boss chief? Did he have what it would take to reform the prison?

10) Discuss the different ways sex is discussed in the book–from the adolescent excitement of Jake and Sissy, to the matter-of-fact romps of Boss Chief and his secretary, to the “magic” between Bigger and Letitia, to the violence between Clyde and Sissy, and even the “unspeakable acts” between Alley and his son. What role does sex play in the telling of the story? How important is it in defining relationships in the book?

11) In reliving her daughter’s drowning and its aftermath, Sissy wishes she had taken time to tell Letitia, “You have been a comfort to me.” Do you think this would have been as important to Letitia as Sissy seems to think it would? What does it say about Sissy that this is the primary regret she expresses in her recollections?

12) Do you think that Clyde Tisdale is inherently a bad man? What factors might motivate his behavior toward Sissy?

13) Most of the adults in the book seem to have chosen their paths, but the children–Jeana, Jakey, young Robert Tisdale–still have their lives before them. What do you think each will make of the events of the story? How might the events of the book alter their fates, if at all?

14) Discuss Calvin McGales’ motivation in leading the Klan. What drives him? Does his role and behavior in the KKK bear any similarity to the way he carries out his bootlegging business? Why do you think he was chosen as a leader above other Klansmen? What qualities of his make him a desirable candidate for the Klan’s membership and mission?

15) Although Clyde Tisdale defines the Klan as the greatest danger, his foil to the Klan’s rule is a “civic trinity” of himself, Sheriff Dodd, and Dr. Jenks. Is this ruling class any better for Ruleton? Do you think Clyde honestly thinks it is? Does he even consider the welfare of Ruleton? Does anyone?

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2014


    Enjoyed this book. Takes you right into the time period and setting. Hope to hear more from this author

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  • Posted May 30, 2011

    Powerful book

    Interesting to see how people felt they were so righteous and superior. Thankful and hopefully most of us have changed. Great read

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  • Posted August 1, 2009

    I found that I could not put it down. Everything could go on around me, but I needed to continue reading.

    I found the characters interesting. I was happy that the good guys were mannerly, nicely dressed and well spoken. The bad guys were easily recognized as they were mean, foul mouthed, and thoroughly detestable. The story was, I feel, very true to the times, and I feel quite certain that this was truly the Mississippi of the early '40's. I was completely involved in the story and really enjoyed the book.
    When you have finished reading this book you may want to try another by Tom Bailey. I read The Grace That Saves This World about a year ago and found it to be another that could not be put down.

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