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Up Before Daybreak: Cotton And People In America Hardcover – April 1, 2006
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From School Library Journal
Starred Review. Grade 4-8–Making excellent use of primary sources (even noting when these sources may be less than accurate) and extended with black-and-white photos and period reproductions, this excellent work gives a detailed picture of the effect of cotton production on the social structure of the United States. From 1607, when the earliest English settlers arrived in Virginia, cotton was among the plants grown in colonial gardens. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in England, the demand for it increased, and the southern colonies found it lucrative to step up production. That cotton culture was part and parcel of the slave system becomes clear in this thoughtfully composed volume. Hopkinson also considers the young women who flocked to Lowell, MA, and the surrounding area to work in the textile factories. After the Civil War, the southern economy remained dependent on cotton, trading the slave system for a sharecropping system, and moving many of the mills to the south. Following workers' histories up through the Great Depression, the final chapter discusses child labor in the past and present. This informative work extends titles such as Arthur John L'Hommedieu's From Plant to Blue Jeans (Scholastic Library, 1998). A first-rate report and research source.–Ann Welton, Grant Elementary School, Tacoma, WA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Gr. 5-8. The author of Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements (2003) here explains to middle-graders how "the story of cotton . . . is like a thread that stretches far back into America's past." In unraveling that thread from the industrial revolution to the 1950s demise of the Lowell cotton mills, Hopkinson discusses the history and sociology of king cotton, frequently emphasizing the children who labored under slave masters, endured dead-end mill jobs, or helped sharecropping parents claw out a living. Stories of real people, such as mill girl Lucy Larcom who escaped the "incessant clash" of the looms to become a famous poet, sharply focus the dramatic history, as do arresting archival photos of stern youngsters manipulating hoes, cotton sags, or bobbins. Neither too long nor too dense, this won't intimidate students reluctantly tackling research projects, and teachers and children alike will welcome the concluding list of suggested readings for youth, the scholarly bibliography, and thorough endnotes. Rarely have the links between northern industry, southern agriculture, slavery, war, child labor, and poverty been so skillfully distilled for this audience. Jennifer Mattson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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" 'I remember hearing them tell about the big price she brought because cotton was so high,' said Henry. 'Old mistress got 15 bales of cotton for sister...It was only a few days till freedom came and the man who had traded all them bales of cotton lost my sister, but old mistress kept the cotton.' "
I'm in touch with cotton on a daily basis. As a matter of fact, what could be closer to me? Closer than my plaid flannel boxers ("100% COTTON, Made in Bangladesh")? Closer than my Beatles Yellow Submarine Picture Book tee-shirt ("100% COTTON, Knit in U.S.A, Assembled in Honduras")? Closer than my Levi Strauss Relaxed Fit 550 Jeans (100% COTTON, Made in Mexico)? Or the soft pillow case under my head as I read this fascinating book (100% COTTON, Made in Bulgaria)? Yup, I've got some significant daily connections to cotton.
As noted by author Deborah Hopkinson, "Growing up, I never fully understood how important those old, run-down mills had been to our country's history. The evidence was right before my eyes, but I couldn't imagine the past. I couldn't see Lowell as a vibrant center of new technology or understand the forces that had left it broken and economically depressed."
Like Hopkinson's experience with Lowell, Massachusetts, I also have a bit of experience with run-down mills. In the mid-Seventies, during my years as an undergraduate student at UConn, I would frequently head down the road to the nearby mill town of Willimantic, whose nickname "Thread City" has since been memorialized by the giant spools of thread upon which the Willimantic Frog Bridge frogs sit. (Check out the bridge at [...]) My destination in Willimantic was Shaboo, a cavernous club serving up big-name live music that operated -- of course -- in an old textile factory building.
As I learned through a bit of my own searching, the Willimantic Linen Company used to be Connecticut's largest employer. At one time they produced 85,000 miles of thread each day. Its modern-era successor, the American Thread Company, still had a presence in town during my collegiate days. And as I also discovered, another of the old buildings in Willimantic, which has recently been renovated as part of the development of a modern business and technology center, was the world's first mill to be illuminated by electric lights -- said to be Thomas Edison's first paying job!
Whether it be factories, farms, or struggling families, Deborah Hopkinson has done an exceptional job here of researching the various threads of the history of cotton in America, and of pulling them together into an engaging story that, in turn, reveals so much about the broader history of our country. What makes the story most interesting is her ability to repeatedly illustrate significant aspects by referring to the words of real characters she uncovered in her research:
"Laura Nichols from Connecticut wanted to earn her own money. She hoped to get more education, but her parents couldn't afford to help her. So Laura took a job in a mill near her home, determined not to give up her hopes for the future.
"Years later, Laura told her own children how hard she had been willing to work for her dreams. Laura believed there was 'something better within my reach and I must have it or die in the attempt. I began to realize that my future would be largely what I make of it, that my destiny was, as it were, in my own hands.'
"New England girls like Laura were part of a new chapter in American history. The early years in Lowell and other mill towns of New England marked the first time large numbers of women moved away from their families to cities to take jobs far from home."
But, as is seen repeatedly throughout the book, such manufacturing work was initially done for low wages, beginning at incredibly young ages, and was carried out at a rapid pace throughout obscenely long work days with no ventilation, and under conditions that frequently led to permanent injury. Very young people who grew old while literally spending the majority of their lives inside the walls of those mills were the victims upon whose tragic lives the modern era of child labor laws, compulsory education, safe working conditions, and minimum wages were eventually and belatedly built.
Of course, the mills were (and will be) seen by many as an improvement over the lives of sharecroppers and tenant farmers who always faced the possibility of working similarly long hours and of coming away without a cent to show for a hard year's work. For instance, Walter Strange, who began sharecropping in 1911 at the age of 12, and who was interviewed in 1938 explained that:
" 'Last year I planted seven acres in cotton and made only one bale. I used poison, too. But the boll weevil ate up the cotton in spite of it,' said Walter. 'The fertilizer cost me one hundred dollars. I sold the cotton for fifty-two dollars. The loss on the fertilizer alone was forty-eight dollars, not counting the work and the other expense. I had to sell something else to finish paying for the fertilizer.' "
Young readers will undoubtedly be intrigued by Walter's beginning as a sharecropper in his own right at such a young age. In fact, whether it be from the narratives she's uncovered, or from viewing the wealth of photographs included throughout the book, so many of the characters Hopkinson brings us face to face with are very young people.
Thus, UP BEFORE DAYBREAK is an excellent example of bringing American history to life.
King Cotton. It's one of those national products that made America what it is today. Tracing the beginning of cotton production from the birth of our nation onwards, the reader comes to understand how this fluffy white flower came to stand at the center of our nation's economy. We see the birth of the cotton gin and the rise of slavery in the South. We watch as the Civil War neatly dismantles the farms and sharecropping rises. At the same time, the history of the mills that spun the cotton and the birth of the American Industrial Revolution all work together to bring us a well-rounded picture of cotton in all its myriad forms and how it affected the people that came in contact with it.
The book is neatly divided into two sections. The first is all that happened with cotton before the Civil War and the second all that happened after. Not only does Ms. Hopkinson discuss at length the effects that both slavery and sharecropping had on white and black workers, but she answers some questions I myself had about the times. For example, why do we never hear about any black mill workers? Well, that may have something to do with the fact that blacks tended to be barred from mill work (always excepting housekeeping and hard labor). Though the text jumps back in forth in time depending on the subject, the reader never gets the feeling that the story is difficult to follow. And while the effect of all of this on children is certainly a large part of the book's focus, adults get just as much attention as well.
Which is maybe why I was a little baffled to find that labor unions didn't really get mentioned in the book. Unionism is reduced to a single paragraph on page 78 and a sentence on page 79, and even then it speaks of a unsuccessful attempt in September 1934. Other small mentions are made of unions, but none are more than a sentence or two here and there and a child reader could be forgiven for assuming through this book that all attempts to unionize mills were unsuccessful.
Yet the book is magnificent in its factual information. First of all, the photos in the book are top notch. Spottted regularly throughout the text they show cotton in different eras, to say nothing of different mill workers throughout the decades. I loved the Selected Bibliography which even went so far as to include "Articles, Oral Histories, Narratives, Bulletins, and Pamphlets". The Notes that go chapter by chapter are copious, and the Index easy to use. But the best part of the book, to my eyes, was the suggested "Further Reading For Young People". How many times have I gotten through a non-fiction book and found the author skimpy on helping kids find further information on a given subject? Well, Ms. Hopkinson is on the case. She even goes so far as to split this section into the books and websites on cotton in the fields vs. cotton in the mills. Manifique.
Sadly, this isn't to say that the book doesn't get a little bogged down in unnecessary facts. Take, for example, the cotton factor John Chrystie. While learning about what a "cotton factor" was is interesting, his story slows significantly when we get a physical description of the warehouse he worked and lived in. Kids reading this book may certainly be interested in the job of factors, but it seems a bit excessive to expect them to keep reading through sentences like, "In the evening we sit in our offices and play whist, or read papers when they come or write letters." I would have liked a couple diagrams to take their place. We hear that picking cotton was a nasty painful job, but we never see a diagram or picture of what a head of cotton looked like. Visualizing is all well and good but it would be nice to see a single head of cotton, if only to understand what the subject of this book even looked like. When a former picker says of cotton that, "When they open up, there's a little point on every one of those at the edge of the burs", you want to see what that means. There is one picture of cotton bolls, but they're not presented in a way that allows you to understand why picking them would be difficult. Ms. Hopkinson also assumes that we understand the history of the boll weevil, so it comes up casually in the text without any history. What is a "boll weevil"? What does it look like? Why did they suddenly appear en masse during the Great Depression? Kids like pictures and they like evil insects. To not include either in the book reduces the story's kid-friendly appeal, which is a pity considering the author's sheer wealth of information.
It would have been nice to hear what the current state of the American cotton industry was. However, it's difficult to fault how Hopkinson smartly ties in this story of slavery and human pain to the 246 MILLION children who work cotton fields all over the globe today. Kudos to Hopkinson then for the sentence in the book's final paragraph, "The next time you buy clothes made of cotton, take time to look at the label. Consider doing some research to see what working conditions are like where that cloth was made." Altogether, the book is a funny mix of good and bad. There were some elements unaddressed and excluded that could have made the title stronger as a whole, and I'm not entirely convinced that many children would read this for pleasure, but it's a fascinating topic and an interesting time in our nation's history. A good if slightly flawed book.