High Cotton: Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta

High Cotton: Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta

by Gerard Helferich
     
 

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This dirt-under-the-fingernails portrait of a small-time farmer follows Zack Killebrew over a single year as he struggles to defend his cotton against weeds, insects, and drought, as well as 21st-century threats such as globalization. Over the course of the season, Helferich details how this singular crop has stamped American history and culture like no other. Then

Overview

This dirt-under-the-fingernails portrait of a small-time farmer follows Zack Killebrew over a single year as he struggles to defend his cotton against weeds, insects, and drought, as well as 21st-century threats such as globalization. Over the course of the season, Helferich details how this singular crop has stamped American history and culture like no other. Then, as Killebrew prepares to harvest his cotton, two hurricanes named Katrina and Rita devastate the Gulf Coast and head toward the Mississippi Delta.

Editorial Reviews

Even in the incredibly fertile flatlands of the Mississippi Delta, raising cotton is a gamble for the small-time farmer. In this utterly absorbing book, Gerard Helferich observes a year in the life of Zack Killebrew, a genial, hardworking planter who ekes out an unpredictable living from 1,000 acres of Delta cotton. Accompanying Zack through a grinding cycle of planting, cultivation, and harvesting, Helferich depicts a way of life fraught with risk and threatened by globalization, political change, and fickle weather conditions. He also examines the impact of slavery, industrialization, the Great Flood of 1927, and the civil rights movement on the development of the Delta. An ambitious blend of cultural history and personal narrative, High Cotton is the best and most entertaining evocation of place to have emerged this season.
Publishers Weekly

Helferich (Humboldt's Cosmos) chronicles in exhaustive detail a year on a small cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta. Working alongside his wife's first cousin, Zack Killebrew, who farms 1,000 acres of cotton in the town of Tchula, he observes every aspect of the cotton-growing business-machinery, planting procedures, irrigation, harvesting, weeds and insects and the chemicals used to control them. He even visits the spinning mill where Zack's cotton is processed. His matter-of-fact approach does not make for exciting reading, but he paints a sympathetic picture of Zack, a practical, resilient man who must contend with the vagaries of the weather, unreliable hired hands, broken machinery and the realization that the government subsidies that keep him going may soon vanish. At his best, Helferich provides valuable insights into the historical and cultural significance of cotton in the United States and the implications of the transition from slave labor to the sharecropping system, "a more insidious method of binding the workers to the land." When mechanical pickers replaced hand labor, many sharecroppers flocked into cities, he observes, leaving the Delta region with a continuing legacy of poverty and racial inequality. Zack treats his hired hands fairly, but, as the book makes clear, not much has changed in the past half century for the children of the Delta's black sharecroppers. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Former editor and publisher Helferich (Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See the World) tells the story of a plant, a region, and a people as he recounts a year in the life of Mississippi Delta cotton farmer Zack Killebrew. Sometimes referred to as the "most southern place on Earth," the Delta is known for its history of racial inequality spurred in part by the economics of cotton. Technological change has now made cotton farming less labor-intensive, but this comes with its own problems, which fall hardest on small-scale farmers like Zack. In addition to telling Zack's story, Helferich explains farm activities and details their related practices, history, and technology; he chronicles cotton growth, slavery in the Delta, herbicide application, modern farm machinery, and cotton in the world economy. Sources are listed for each chapter, and the bibliography is useful. Helferich will keep readers wondering whether Zack will be able to endure another year in the face of a separation from his wife, tornadoes and storms, and Hurricane Katrina. Recommended for libraries serving agricultural communities and those with regional interest.
—Joshua Lambert

Kirkus Reviews
One year with an independent Mississippi cotton farmer reveals the harshness and fragility of life in the Delta. Helferich (Humboldt's Cosmos, 2004) has a busy agenda. He competently chronicles 12 months of sun and storm, good and ill fortune. He pauses regularly to broaden and contextualize. He reflects on issues of race and class. He sketches the personal life of farmer Zack Killebrew. Not everything goes well. Zack's crop suffers nasty visits from the residue of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (the latter actually does more harm). His 30-year marriage to the author's first cousin fractures, introducing an awkwardness that Helferich never sufficiently addresses. Most of the digressions are instructive and necessary. They teach us about the geology of the Delta, its natural history, the chemistry of cotton, the evolution and workings of the cotton gin, the creation of genetically engineered seeds, battles with pests, crop-dusting, irrigation, the history and functions of relevant farm equipment, the political issue of farm subsidies, the techniques of making denim. The author returns continually to Holmes County's internecine racial conflicts, reviewing the history of slavery, the uses of slaves in cotton farming, the ongoing economic hardships many black families in the region endure. (He devotes perhaps too many pages to a rehearsal of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.) A number of Zack's employees were black, and Helferich carefully observed them, recording their sometimes unpleasant interactions with their boss and other whites. The author explores, as well, the hunting-and-fishing culture of Zack and his comrades; Helferich himself amusingly failed at both. A generally genialportrait of a rugged man shaped and shoved by geography, weather, economics and race. Agent: Deirdre Mullane/Spieler Agency

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781582433950
Publisher:
Counterpoint Press
Publication date:
09/01/2008
Pages:
328
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.90(d)

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