Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In the Land of Cotton

In the Land of Cotton is Martha Taylor’s very personal look at one of the most volatile and exciting periods in American history, a time during which the Civil Rights Movement changed race relations in this country forever. It was a decade during which America put a man on the moon, fought one of the most unpopular wars in its history, and finally recognized that all men are, indeed, created equal. Like Martha, I came of age in the South during the 1960s. Unlike her, with the exception of how America’s Viet Nam adventure impacted all young men of the time, I was largely an outside observer to what was happening around the country.

When Martha’s story begins in 1956, she is a young girl living a relatively sheltered life with her grandparents in Memphis, Tennessee. One year later Martha’s parents buy a home in a new Memphis subdivision and she moves back home to live with her parents and little sister, a move that will change her life forever. Martha’s parents are happy enough to leave her to herself as long as she is home before dark every evening and she is quick to take advantage of that lack of attention.

Exploring the area on her bicycle one day, Martha is thrilled to discover, deep in the woods near her home, the little family enclave in which Lucy Boyd, her family’s black housekeeper, lives. The Boyd family is at first a little uneasy about having Martha around so much, fearing what might happen if the little white girl is noticed there among them. Martha, however, because she understands her own family’s racial attitudes well enough to know she can never tell them about her visits, is able to continue them in complete secrecy.

And continue, the visits do. Martha comes to know and love the several generations of Boyds living in their primitive family compound and they, in turn, accept her as one of their own. By the time her parents move the family to Texas, the Boyds have taught Martha more about the world and life than she will ever learn from her own parents, and she has become especially attached to Silas Boyd, a young man about her age.

What happens to Martha and Silas over the next few years is as much America’s story as it is their own. Deeply in love though she might be, Martha realizes that her family is never likely to accept her love for a black man. Silas, on the other hand, has the reluctant approval of his mother but knows that being seen with a white girl in the 1960s South could cost him his life. Swept up by the rapidly changing events of the times, their story is one of inspiration and tragedy.

In the Land of Cotton is a touching reminder of those times for those of us who lived through them. Just as importantly, it is a very readable personal history of that period for those too young to remember it for themselves, history told in a manner that makes it both vivid and real – something even the best history books seldom achieve.

Rated at: 4.0

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