Publication Date: January 11, 2022
A New York City rich kid ends up penniless on a cotton farm in Mississippi. That description at NetGalley, combined with the cover illustration, attracted me to Cottonlandia by Watt Key. It's a city mouse/country mouse, fish-out-of-water story, but one that's not played for laughs in the Green Acres mold. Also, there's no dealing with a traditional high school situation and friends here. No bullies, no teacher problems, no sports, no sibling rivalries. Not your same old, same old YA.
Fifteen-year-old Win Canterbury is not your same old, same old YA male, either. He is self-centered, self-involved, selfish, entitled, and immature and demanding. He most definitely is not the likable character required for readers to identify with. I loved him. He might not be someone I'd like to know personally, but I loved him in this book, because he was different. His unpleasantness, however, doesn't alter the fact that he has also been abandoned, though not your traditional abandonment on the side of the street. The reason for the abandonment is unique as well.
Just before Christmas sometime in the 1990s, Win's wealthy father informs him that he's sending him down to visit his sickly grandmother in Mississippi for a few days. Win doesn't know the woman. He's only been to Mississippi once. His father is insistent. So Win is handed off to a flight attendant in New York, takes three planes to get to his destination, where he is met at the airport by John Case, the farmer who has been renting the Canterbury family's property, Cottonlandia, for decades. The farm is a going concern as a cotton plantation/farm, but the family house is sort of rotting around its owner, who is sort of rotting away herself. Not exactly a southern mansion, though it and the grandmother have clearly seen better days. Win is dropped into this world where he can't even get food he's used to, and after a few days he learns that he has to stay there. He has nowhere else to go.
The 1990s setting makes Cottonlandia believable. The Internet was not then what it is now and teenagers were not connected with phones and social media, so Win's isolation makes sense. An old lady with no TV and only one phone she doesn't want to use would be eccentric at that time but still possible.
In a more formulaic YA book, Win and his creepy grandmother would develop a deep, meaningful relationship. Not here, thank goodness. Or living at Cottonlandia would awaken some kind of instinctual love for the family property. Again, no. Instead, Win's boredom and dependence on John Case, as his contact with his old world, eventually leads to his involvement with the people he now finds himself stuck with. He eventually rejects those who should have cared for him and didn't and embraces those who provided him with care when he needed it.
If I knew more about southern regional writing, I might suggest that Cottonlandia is southern lit for YA. Place and world view are hugely important in the story, and the place is in the south. There's a lot of description, which is something I usually skim. I didn't here. Seriously, I actually read about cotton farming and blowing up beaver dams. (Aside: I am not fond of beavers.) I felt I was being exposed to something new for me, read everything, and looked forward to getting back to the book between reading sessions. Some people might argue that the climax of the story wasn't climactic enough, but there's a reality to that. Plus, if you had any involvement with construction at the end of the last century, the issue Win uses to get what he wants is entirely believable. It used to be a very big deal and may still be, though maybe not so much here in New England.
The author, who has published successfully with traditional publishers, says in a note that he published Cottonlandia himself. It can be hard for self-published books to attract attention. I hope that this one gets some.