by Paul Yarbrough
Reviewed By Donna Meredith
It might seem odd to characterize a novel that begins with a dead body found in a river as quiet, yet Mississippi Cotton, by Paul Yarbrough, flows at a gentle pace through the summer of 1951. The tenderness of the family scenes, soft humor and genuine love for all things Mississippi make this novel an engaging read.
Ten-year-old protagonist Jake narrates the story of a summer spent in Cotton City, Mississippi, with his cousins Taylor and Casey. The author describes this family with obvious love and with nostalgia for an earlier time, represented as innocent and better than the modern era. Six-year-old Cousin Casey adds much: The faces he makes over a man chewing tobacco, a rendition of “Swanee River” with his hand cupped under his armpit, and inappropriate remarks at the supper table about naked girls. He is continually being threatened by his parents for his behavior as they try to make a gentleman of him.
While the murder and the young cousins’ fascination weaves its way through the summer, the story retains a gentle feel amid fishing and skinny dipping, and watching John Wayne at the picture show, along with hoeing cotton and eating Cousin Carol’s wonderful meals.
Some scenes show the young men receiving instruction from their elders. Good manners are only the beginning of those lessons. Traditional Southern views of the Civil War, referred to as the War of Independence, are passed down from the family patriarch, Big Trek, who tells the boys Yankees “weren’t fighting to free anyone,” and emphasizes that blacks fought alongside the Confederate Army. Jake remembers his parents told him it was a shame the South lost because they were right. While these views will offend some readers, they are doubtless authentic for the novel’s setting.
The archetype of the Magic Negro appears several times in the book, once in a story of two Confederate soldiers, one white and one black. The black soldier nurses the wounded white soldier back to health, saves his life and carries him back to Mississippi. The Magic Negro occurs again in the summer of 1951 as the hard-working Big Black Julius, nicknamed BB, tries to protect Looty, a simple-minded white man reminiscent of Boo Radley. Young Jake draws a connection between these two older men, noting they both possess sincerity, though BB is smart and wise, and Looty is simple and good. Both characters come across as rather one-dimensional, as viewed through the eyes of young Jake.
BB also offers the boys a lesson about Jeff Davis, and how his whole plantation was devoted to teaching slaves what it meant to be free. It is difficult to imagine a Southern black offering an extensive defense of the Confederacy. The speech BB delivers on work and the land felt more legitimate: “I am a slave right now. So are you. We are slaves to this cotton field. I got to work or I don’t eat. You got to work or you’ll get a whippin’.” BB does allow that he “wouldn’t want to be tol’ [he] couldn’t come and go as [he] pleased.”
It’s not hard to agree with the viewpoint that we are all slaves to our jobs, but the novel underplays and brushes off the harsher aspects of slavery: the possibility of being beaten, raped or sold away from your family.
The novel’s bad guy predictably turns out to be a Yankee. The epilogue laments Interstate highway, “a monster” that “stole land and lives and memories” and had begun to “steal the South’s identity and rob its people of their culture.” In the novel’s last words—”And the Yankees overwhelmed them—” the protagonist’s yearning is palpable, not only for the Mississippi of his childhood, but also, like Miniver Cheevy, for a land that disappeared before he was born.
Mississippi Cotton author Paul Yarbrough was born and reared in Jackson, Mississippi, and attended Mississippi State, the University of Louisiana, Lafayette and University of Houston. His degrees are in mathematics and physics, and he studied applied mathematics and geophysics in graduate school.