Synopses & Reviews
Tracy Kidder meets John McPhee in the hot sun of the Mississippi Delta, in this year in the life of a modern-day cotton farmer.
The rich, flat topsoil of the Mississippi Delta has seen both astonishing economic production and some of the most tragic history in our nation's past. It is, in Richard Ford's apt phrase, "the South's South." Contested ground since European explorers first set foot there three centuries ago, it turned out to have the ideal climate for growing cotton, a crop that seemed destined to a marginal role in America's economy until technology and politics combined to make it one of the driving forces behind our bloodiest war. Its legacy echoed in the racial divide of the century that followed.
Against this historical backdrop, Gerard Helferich traces the life of a modern cotton farmer, exploring the traditions of growing cotton that have endured since ancient times-and the current forces that threaten to drive small farmers from the land. High Cotton spends a year with small-time farmer Zack Killebrew and his family, recording the annual cycle of planting, cultivation, and harvest, as Zack teeters between the promise of a six-figure payoff and the ever-present peril of financial ruin.
Combining an engaging personal narrative, a strong sense of time and place, and a McPheelike attention to process, High Cotton is a story with deep roots in American history.
"'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)' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In addition to telling Zack's story, Helferich explains farm activities and details their related practices, history, and technology." Library Journal
"Without maudlin excess, Mr. Helferich is at pains to show that, for Mr. Killebrew and farmers like him, there is a constant precariousness to existence. The costs of diesel fuel, fertilizer, insurance and land seem to edge upward unrelentingly, but the price of cotton has edged downward in the past 25 years. It is true that government subsidy helps to mitigate the punishments of price fluctuation, but the profit margins are narrow enough to make survival a real question from season to season." Wall Street Journal
"Interwoven throughout Killebrew's story is fascinating history surrounding just about every aspect of cotton and its farming." Rocky Mountain News
Helferich traces the life of a modern cotton farmer, exploring the traditions of growing cotton that have endured since ancient times, and the current forces that threaten to drive small farmers from the land.
About the Author
Gerard Helferich is a former editor and publisher, most recently as Vice-President and Publisher of General Interest Books at Wiley. He is the author of Humboldt's Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Epic Journey of Discovery that Changed the Way We See the World. He lives with his wife, Teresa (a native Mississippian), in San Miguel, Mexico, and Yazoo City, Mississippi.