A second anniversary traditionally calls for cotton, the modern list for china. Being a traditionalist, I wondered how to incorporate cotton into my two year celebration of this “Readin’, Ritin’, and Not Much ‘Rithmatic” blog. Sleeping on cotton sheets is normal, not a celebration. Making a cotton ball craft was singularly unappealing. Picking cotton is a lost art and one I never mastered, but it brought me a good idea. I would reread Cotton in My Sack, my favorite Lois Lenski book, though not the one that won the Newbery Award. That was Strawberry Girl.
The next trick was to find it. I knew I once had a copy, but it was not to be found. An “oldie but goodie,” the book has been worn out and not replaced in most libraries. I could have read it in the reading room of the de Grummond Collection but not checked it out. I had a visit planned to visit my Marshall Texas library director daughter. She found it by interlibrary loan to read while we were there. I loved it once again. Wouldn’t you know, when I got home, I found my old worn copy! Don’t tell Anna.
Children in Arkansas who’d read Strawberry Girl invited Lois Lenski to come see them and write a cotton story. She visited in the spring of 1947 with a longer visit in the fall. She experienced the life and language of sharecroppers, tenants, and owners. I grew up with my father as pastor in North Mississippi mirror-image cotton communities across the river. Her story took me home to a life long gone, told through the eyes of Joanda, the sharecropper’s daughter.
I knew reliance on unreliable weather, echoed in Mrs. Burgess’s complaint about rain that wouldn’t come when needed in the summer and then came in a flood when they needed to pick the cotton. I remembered my grandfather’s promising cotton crop ruined as an afternoon’s hailstorm stripped its leaves, too late to replant.
I knew their split session of school starting in early July, getting out when the cotton was ready to pick in September, and resuming when the crop was in. I knew those children who needed to help harvest the family crop with bragging rights about their 100 – 200 pound a day picking rate.
I knew the people: those who went to town every Saturday and spent what little money they had without worrying about February when the old “furnish” money played out and the new had not started; the men, overwhelmed with lack of hope they’d ever get out of debt, drinking up their bit of money to forget for a while; proud people who resisted what they saw as a handout even when their children lacked adequate food and clothes.
I found Joanda’s discovery of their landowner’s wife in tears, also worried about crop failures and debt, to be the most poignant scene in the book. Later, as she listens to women in conversation, she realizes “Cotton was their whole life. Cotton brought them joy and sorrow, hope and despair.”
Lois Lenski has fourteen regional books. She went to the places, lived among the people, learned their hope and fears as well as their language. The books are worth looking for. Your local librarian can help you find one from a place where you live or a place you would like to learn about – even if she (he) is not related to you. Or if you want to own it, an independent bookstore owner like mine can track down a used copy at less than collector prices. Which reminds me - I need to call him today for a different out-of-print “oldie” for a new grandchild.