Tom Bailey's riveting and thought-provoking second novel, Cotton Song, zeroes in on a small town in Mississippi during the summer of 1944. The novel opens just after the lynching of Letitia Johnson, the longtime nanny for the Rules, the town's wealthiest and most prestigious family. The Rules' baby daughter was found drowned in their bathtub the previous morning, and by that evening a Ku Klux Klan-led mob had lynched Letitia, before she was even formally charged with the crime. Baby Allen, the county welfare agent, is sent to find Letitia's 12-year-old daughter Sally, who for obvious reasons has gone into hiding.
Juxtaposed with the account of Baby's attempt to rescue young Sally is the story of Jake Lemaster, son of the Boss Chief of Parchman Farm, the infamous real-life prison housing the state's most violent offenders. Jake lives in the shadow of his father, and is forced to go along with his cruel disciplinary tactics and inhumane treatment of prisoners. When Jake begins snooping around the Rules suspecting that Letitia was not at fault his father heads him off, telling him that the truth is what folks agree to say it is, and warning Jake that his scruples are turning him into a weakling.
Both Baby and Jake are compelling characters. Bailey gradually allows the reader into their personal lives introducing Baby's habitually unfaithful husband and Jake's rigid and unforgiving ex-beauty queen wife. It becomes clear that the odds are against them in their attempts to confront the racist powers that be, and the tension builds as the Klan prepares for its next step. Meanwhile, Jake's enemies strive to deter him from the truth, both events leading to inevitable tragedy.
Bailey's novel succeeds on several levels: as a Faulkner-esque tale of empathetic but alienated characters, as an indictment of human brutality and as a litany of the South's struggle to come to terms with the racial strife of its not-too-distant past. Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.