Book: The Ballad of Lee Cotton

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The Ballad of Lee Cotton

Author: Christopher Wilson
Publisher: Time Warner Books Uk

From his Icelandic father Lee Cotton gets his marble skin and blue eyes. From his mixed-race mother he gains his black identity. From his Mambo grandmother he inherits forebodings about his future. It’s a combination that sets Lee apart from the other black kids growing up in Eureka, Mississippi. It marks Lee out as slightly odd. And very white.

If childhood was confusing, adolescence proves life changing when Lee falls in love with the sublime Angelina. It’s also life threatening: Angel’s father is a freelance shooter for the Klan, who doesn’t take kindly to his daughter’s boyfriend.

An act of appalling violence leaves Lee far from home with a new identity, a draft card, a memory that operates in flashback and a mental illness that makes him a sort of genius. He also has a reputation, back home, for being dead. Nobody (except possibly his grandmother) could envisage that Lee’s rebirth is a headstart and not a handicap. His role in a quite remarkable journey through life will be to transform others as he has transformed himself…


In 1950, a black boy is born in segregated Eureka, Mississippi. Nothing startling there, except that he is born with white skin and blonde hair. His mother is properly black and his father, long gone, is an Icelander. This boy’s name is Lee Cotton. In the course of the next 20-odd years, he will have a series of adventures that defy reason, beggar the imagination and stagger belief. And, that’s a little like the way author Christopher Wilson writes. His style is irresistible because it is sly, sardonic and flat-out hilarious.

The first important person in Lee’s life is his grandmother, Celeste, who arrives annually from “N’awlins” bearing gifts and words of wisdom. “She’s sixty-something, going on eighty. Spiritual possession, liquor, tobacco smoking, and sniffing powders has taken its toll, rasped her voice, sucked out her flesh, and taxed her skin.” Celeste convinces Lee that Voudou and Baptism—”that down-on-your-knees-know-your-place-slave-church” that his mother belongs to—are just “a hog’s whisker apart.” Both Lee and Celeste hear voices, the living and the dead, which sometimes comes in handy; for instance, when predicting game scores and winning horses.

Lee falls in love with the daughter of a stereotypical southern racist and nearly gets the life kicked out of him for it. He is thrown on a freight train, mostly dead, and fetches up in St. Louis where he is eventually taken into a psych-ops part of the Army and meets a rich panoply of people as weird as he is. He has some fun at the induction physical: “I got to backtrack about growing up as an Iceland colored, with double-recessive white genes, because my mambo grandmother was only part black, while my daddy was pure Scandinavian blond.” Life hands Lee another big surprise after which he is not only a white black person, but something even more startling. About that, Lee says: “Well, I can deal with change. I can wander beyond my comfort zones. I been black, and I been white. I been alive and dead, rich and poor, clever and stupid, entire and broke, one-brained and two-brained (courtesy of the Army), lost and found. But, for sure, there’s a limit to how much you can handle…”

There are juicy aphorisms on every page of Cotton, but the book is never preachy, despite covering 25 years of race and gender strife in these United States. The ending is a little too pat, but the rest of the book is such fun to read, Wilson can be forgiven. Wilson’s first novel was Mischief in which Charlie discovers that he was an abandoned baby, the last of the Xique Xiques of Brazil and that he has alien qualities that he must hide in order to get along in human society. Clearly, this author has a big imagination. —Valerie Ryan

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