Cotton Song opens with social worker Baby Allen bumping her Model T down a dry and dusty 1940s Mississippi road on her way to rescue a twelve-year-old African-American girl. She hopes that Sally Johnson has survived the lynch mob that killed her mother, Letitia, after she was accused of drowning the (white) baby of the town’s most important family. As Baby fights to uncover the truth behind this heinous crime, she finds herself at odds with Boss Chief and his son, Jake Lemaster, who run Parchman Farm – a local prison – on the backs of men unjustly accused.
Bailey uses several narrators to move the story forward, with much success. Readers meet Jolene, Jake’s prim wife, and feel her misery. Readers suffer with Sissy as she struggles to understand what happened to her baby daughter. Readers get chilling glimpses into the hidden lives and motivations of these and other characters. The contrast between the sultry Mississippi heat and the coldness of some of the characters is one of the novel’s most captivating aspects.
The combination of such incredibly well-written characters and an almost timeless, yet so of-its-time, story creates an incredibly harsh and touching read. This is one of those books that, after finishing, gets placed quietly on the table, pushed slowly away, and leaves one feeling quietly reflective for a few moments. I highly recommend it.