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Loretta Little Looks Back
Three Voices Go Tell It
Formats and Prices
- Hardcover $17.99 $22.99 CAD
- ebook $7.99 $9.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 29, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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“Right here, I’m sharing the honest-to-goodness.” — Loretta
“I’m gon’ reach back, and tell how it all went. I’m gon’ speak on it. My way.” — Roly
“I got more nerve than a bad tooth. But there’s nothing bad about being bold.” — Aggie B.
Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B., members of the Little family, each present the vivid story of their young lives, spanning three generations. Their separate stories — beginning in a cotton field in 1927 and ending at the presidential election of 1968 — come together to create one unforgettable journey.
Through an evocative mix of fictional first-person narratives, spoken-word poems, folk myths, gospel rhythms and blues influences, Loretta Little Looks Back weaves an immersive tapestry that illuminates the dignity of sharecroppers in the rural South. Inspired by storytelling’s oral tradition, stirring vignettes are presented in a series of theatrical monologues that paint a gripping, multidimensional portrait of America’s struggle for civil rights as seen through the eyes of the children who lived it. The novel’s unique format invites us to walk in their shoes. Each encounters an unexpected mystical gift, passed down from one family member to the next, that ignites their experience what it means to reach for freedom.
HOW TO READ THIS BOOK
1927 to 1930
THE BOLL WEEVIL’S BREAKFAST
WHERE AND WHEN: Holly Ridge, Mississippi. September 1927. A wide field of fluffy white, blooming on the Clem Parker plantation. Loretta stands front and center.
IT WAS DADDY WHAT FIRST SHOWED ME HOW TO MAKE THE bolls surrender. Said, “Snap from its claw, girl-child. Cotton wants to hang on. Why you think we call it boxing cotton? It’s because the boll weevil’s breakfast will always put up a fight.”
That’s right, Daddy taught me everything I needed to know about handling them stubborn plants.
Said, “You gots to fight back. Show that natty stuff how strong you are. Let them boll-weevil beetles go hungry because you snatched away the cotton before they get a chance to feed on it.”
Along with Daddy, I lived in a family of sisters, the youngest of three girls. Jo-Nelle and Faye were twins, and much bigger than me, and coming up on their womanhood. They were grown by most counts. Old enough to keep house, work the land, and tell me what to do. Daddy and my sisters showed me the ways of sharecropping. Explained what it meant to be working on Clem Parker’s land. I was ten years old.
Daddy, he swore up and down about how slavery had not yet ended, even though Mr. President Lincoln, going by the name of Abraham—same name as the prophet who they call “the believer” in the Bible—took a first step to crush slavery when he issued his Emancipation Proclamation, something near to sixty-five years before. Even though Mr. Lincoln’s Proclamation didn’t put a stop to slavery, the president was trying to walk in the direction of slavery’s end.
At night, after a day of picking, chopping, and hauling Clem’s cotton, whew, did my daddy get to cursing. Talking about how the chickens that’s running around on Clem’s property were more free than we was.
Daddy, night after night, said, “At least those chickens get to keep their feed. Clem don’t snatch back their corn after sprinkling it for them to eat.”
Daddy, so tired. Daddy, always sick with anger’s fever. Daddy, who could never tell Clem how pounding mad he was. And who didn’t like to show his temper in front of us children. Still, I could feel the fury rising out from my daddy. So weary about how things was.
Clem, he had a way of irritating people, especially Daddy. He was a landowner whose mouth always twisted into a smile, and who spoke in what sounded all friendly. Smug, was how Daddy described it. When you first met Clem, he seemed sensible. But whenever he voiced Daddy’s name, he pulled it out on a long rope, taking his time, and mostly saying it wrong.
Daddy is Gideon Little. How hard is that to pronounce?
But here comes Clem, calling Daddy Giddyup, like what you say to make your horse go faster. There was nothing fast about the way Clem dragged it out, though. Day after day, he was deliberate about messing up my father’s right name.
“Giddyup, how you doin’, how you been?”
“Beautiful day, Giddyup, isn’t it?”
To make it worse, Clem would tease out the second part of his mistake for the name Gideon, pulling on the u, turning it into a jangly chain of o’s.
“We could sure use some rain, Giddyuuup.”
“Giddyuuup, I ever tell you how glad I am to know you?”
“A fine person, you are, Giddyuuup. Better than most.”
Every time Clem spoke to my father like that, Daddy winced. Bit hard on his lip, same like I do when Jo-Nelle or Faye yanks a comb through my tangled hair after washing it.
Imagine having some slow-talking man who is the boss of you, poking fun at your name all day long.
The strange thing was, even though Giddyuuup most times slid off Clem’s tongue, he would also go for long stretches of saying Gideon the right way. And he would sing Daddy’s praises in front of all of us who worked on his land.
One time, Clem called everyone together, gathered us, and spoke about how hard a worker Gideon Little was.
Clapped Daddy’s shoulder. “You see this fine man here? He’s an example of what it means to have integrity and fitness for tending our soil.”
On that day, Clem even gave Daddy some bonus pay. A one-time bit of extra money for his good work.
As grateful as we were for those coins, there was something troubling about the way Clem could be. He was confusing. We never knew what to expect.
Daddy said, “That man is like a shiny apple out of season. He looks good on the outside, but you can’t be sure if what’s beneath the skin is sweet or mealy. It’s all a chance.”
From when I was a small child, I remember Daddy correcting Clem whenever he bungled his true name. My father spoke firm to his boss, smiled right back, his jaw tight.
“Mister Parker, sir, my name is Gideon, not Giddyuuup. And yes, we do need rain. Thank you for the complimentary words about my manner, but can we agree that you will call me Gideon from here on?”
Clem, who must have been hard of hearing, or some kind of tone-deaf, didn’t fully honor what Daddy was asking of him.
All he said was, “I appreciate you setting me straight.”
One time, when Daddy extended his hand to shake on it, to make a pact, Clem wiped his palms on the thighs of his britches. Kept smiling. Nodded once, but never shook.
After that, he’d respect my father’s request for a time, and correctly call him Gideon. But soon Clem would go back to putting his slippery mix-up onto the name Gideon. He’d return to calling Daddy Giddyuuup, pronouncing it as wrong as ever for weeks at a time, followed by more weeks of saying it correctly.
When Giddyuuup spilled from Clem’s lips, Daddy, proud, and never shying back from nobody, would firmly repeat, “Mister Parker, sir, my name is Gideon, not Giddyuuup.”
I once asked my father, “Daddy, how come when you correct Clem about your name, he keeps getting it wrong?”
Daddy thought before speaking. He didn’t fully answer what I was asking. I think that had something to do with Clem being an apple out of season, and us never truly knowing what was at his core.
Daddy said, “Child, I only got so much energy. I ain’t gon’ waste it on a fickle-fool boss, doing what he wants on the whim of whatever way the breeze blows in his one-day-like-this, one-day-like-that way of behaving.”
To me, Clem Parker might as well have been pinching Daddy every time he came ahead with his Giddyuuup nonsense. A pinch doesn’t hurt that bad once, or twice even. But when somebody keeps nipping you over and over, it starts to eat at your skin. When the pinch comes with a smug smile, the sting brings more pain.
Somewhere along the line, my father stopped correcting Clem. Daddy was still a self-respecting man, but he’d been pinched one too many times. He bore bruises nobody could see. I believe this is what made Daddy so solemn.
When it came to our names, Daddy put care and kindness into pronouncing them. Though he and Mama named me Loretta, Daddy always said my name like he was singing a happy salutation.
Left off the Lo. Called me ’Retta, for short. Spoke it like I was royalty. Loved me deep, Daddy did. Loved all us children, while clinging to his memories of Mama.
The truth of it is, Daddy’s love was enough to cover what we were missing from not having a mother. Our mama passed soon after I came. People all saying she died of a weak heart brought about by sunstroke, and a disease called sick-and-tired. I was her last baby. Born six whole years after my sisters. Seeing as Faye and Jo-Nelle are older, they have always treated me like I was their child.
When remembering my mother, Daddy said the only thing that ever softened Mama’s sick-and-tired was holding me.
Maybe that’s why, no matter how hurt or broke-down Daddy got, he was never too weary to hug us. His arms were more mighty than the feelings he carried around inside. And Daddy always found the strength to sing me to sleep. Hungry blues flowed from his deepest sorrows. Spirituals, too. Songs about sunlight and wading in free waters. Hymns from Daddy’s sun-cracked lips, telling how he wanted to be ready to dress in white when heaven called him home.
I believe my love for singing, and for feeling the power of music, is a gift from my father.
In the evenings, Jo-Nelle and Faye rubbed down Daddy’s sore back, bent over with the ache of his quiet rage. Can’t blame him for being mad. When you’re a sharecropper, chickens do have more freedom than you. Cows, too. Pigs, even. Dogs, for sure. All kinds of farm creatures got the advantage of doing what comes natural, when and how they want.
Not once did Clem ever pinch at his dogs’ dignity, or disrespect any of his farm animals by playing around with their names.
As sharecroppers, we made our living by waking up earlier than early. Had to be ready to work before the dew even knew what to do, in the dark morning hours we called can’t see. Had to make our way to fields of blooming white cotton clinging to their prickly thistles.
Spent all day boxing cotton while the sun’s blistering hand pressed down hard.
Even though I was the baby of the Little family, when I turned six, I had to work ’longside my sisters. We were forced to give half of what-all we harvested to Clem.
We didn’t own not even a snatch of that land. It was Clem Parker’s property. In some respects, we were Clem’s property, too. Not slaves by the law. But enslaved in the spirit. Got spit-pay for the hard work we did.
If we had a bad cropping year, Clem took from our wages to make up for the debt we owed him. Same, but opposite, the more cotton we grew, the more we could keep for ourselves.
Seeing as how I was the smallest of all the kids, and how my fingers were no bigger than twigs, I could get at those cotton bolls quicker than anybody else. So I made a decision. I would do more than work. I would win in the game of quick picking. I would reach for what I wanted, and nobody would stand in my way.
My first day in the fields was the best and the worst. Clem told me that if I picked thirty pounds of cotton, he would reward me with a bag of cookies. That was the best part—the promise of something sweet I could share with my family. Then came the bad part—the picking!
You ever tried to handle a cotton plant’s bur? It is sharp. And obstinate. Those burs will hold on as tight as a closed-up fist.
For sure, boxing cotton is a knock-down-drag-out. But I wanted the cookies Clem had promised. And more than that, I wanted to help my family.
In fighting with cotton’s claws, I was left with bloody thumbs, ripped skin, and blisters. Cried most of my first day while I picked. Kept on, though. Stayed at it. Reached past the pain. Put all my attention to winning. Would not stop till the other side of can’t see came back, when the sun had long set, and we worked by the moon’s milk. I snatched that thirty pounds of cotton. Yes I did. Saw right away why Daddy was so tired every night.
Clem made good on his word, but only partway. With the picking done, he tossed me a small burlap sack.
“Here’s your prize, gal.”
This boss man with the easy smile rewarded me with a bag of cookies, like he’d promised, but they were stale gingersnaps, moldy at the edges.
After hours of boxing cotton, all the time thinking on those cookies, my hands and my heart knew what fury feels like.
My sisters did double duty that evening. First slathered Daddy’s back with salve, then dabbed a peppermint-balm mix onto each of my fingers, up and down my arms, and all around my sore ankles and tired feet.
The week after that, I picked forty-seven pounds of cotton. I didn’t have to fight with the boll weevil’s breakfast, neither. There was no fight. I was the nimble winner from the beginning.
WHERE AND WHEN: Holly Ridge, Mississippi. Spring 1928. ’Retta stands in a thicket of wild grass, the ribbon of land just outside her schoolhouse.
PROUD AS I WAS ABOUT HOW GOOD I COULD WORK COTTON, I was even prouder about being smart in school. I loved learning letters and arithmetic. As far as reading was concerned, I was just as good at words as I was in the fields.
By the time I was eleven, I could unlock a whole peck of sentences from books. I was quick with numbers, too.
I loved school. Every day I marched to that place like I was in a proud parade. Skip-stepped the whole way.
Miss Teacher Lady couldn’t help but call on me. My hand was always first, waving high. I was as eager as a croaker in a frog-jumping contest to tell what-all I knew.
Our school was in one room. A tiny shack packed with fifty-and-something kids, from little to big. Boys and girls, all of us Colored. All poor. All hungry to learn what we didn’t know, and hard-pressed to get as much of it as we could.
And so, here is a secret I haven’t never told. Not a soul knows this. But here, now, I’m gon’ speak it out loud.
The day my sisters said I had to quit my schooling, I ran and ran to a far-off field. Buried my whole face in both my thick-skinned hands. Cried and cried like a baby with colic. Got down on my knees and ripped at anything that was coming up from that red dirt staining my skirt. I was crabgrass mad!
I knew this day was coming. How’d I know? The same thing had happened to Faye and Jo-Nelle. When you’re a sharecropping child, there comes a time when school just ain’t practical. When you’re a girl like me, who can pick cotton faster than most kids, your family needs you in the fields, full-time. Especially with Mama gone.
All us children knew our time at school would be short, and that the cotton’s claws were waiting to pierce the tender skin on the underside of our hands.
At school, we had no pencils or books or paper. We learned by what Miss Teacher Lady wrote on a small chalkboard at the front of that crowded place.
But as measly as our school room was, we bit hard into our lessons. It was as if Miss Teacher Lady had handed out a single ear of corn—that all fifty-and-something of us had to share—and told us to finish off every golden kernel.
We students were neighbors and friends, and we liked each other plenty, but we all wanted that same corn.
You ever seen chickens squabble for a handful of seeds?
You ever seen how pigeons crowd and peck and grab at scraps of bread?
That’s what it was like at school. All fifty-and-something of us wanted to gobble up what Miss Teacher Lady was forced to ration because there was only so much to give.
Being sharecropper children, we knew what it meant to share. But when your belly is bloated from not having enough, it’s hard to be generous or fair to even your best friend.
Boxing cotton is one thing, but snatching at lessons brings on just as much of a fight. It’s a tug-of-war for something you can’t fully touch. It’s not a battle that leaves you with blistered thumbs and cracked skin. It’s a fight for wanting to learn reading and numbers.
Like going up against the boll weevil’s breakfast, I was winning. I was learning some of the longest words. And I could spell good. I knew how to write my whole name—Loretta Harper Little. I could write Mama’s name—Delia. And Daddy’s—Gideon. And Jo-Nelle and Faye, too.
I was able to add and subtract from my memory, not even once using my fingers to help me count.
But when it came time to say goodbye to schooling for good, I had all ten fingers wrapped around long blades of crabgrass. I yanked and heaved and hollered out. I understood how my daddy felt having to tamp down what he really wanted to express.
I could sure not ever tell my sisters, or even Daddy, that I was mad for having to quit school. It wasn’t their fault. The person to be yelling at was Clem Parker. Aside from him, what truly deserved to be yanked out by the roots was the sharecropping system.
Thankfully, there was one place I could quietly, secretly tell what-all I was feeling. That place was the True Vine Baptist Church, where I attended services with my family. One Sunday, I knelt after the sermon and told the silent air above my head I did not like having to quit school in sixth grade. A band of angels must have been watching down on me, because our choir started to sing a gospel song called “Whisper Wish for What You Want.”
So that’s just what I did. Without expressing a single word out loud, I wished for what I wanted: to be able to keep up with book-learning and getting educated.
At True Vine, I was no stranger to the choir. Singing with them lifted me to a place I can only describe as cloud nine in a pew. The words of our congregation’s hymns carried some kind of special power. My favorite was a simple song. A Christmas hymn that we sang all year, but took it upon ourselves to change the words so that they could suit any Sunday.
The song—“Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
Here’s one version I recall:
Go tell it on the mountain
O’er the hills and ev’ry where
Go tell it on the mountain
That this new day is born.
At church, like in school, I applied myself to learning. I got to know all the words and notes of as many spirituals as I could. It was as if those petitions went straight to God’s ear. Miss Teacher Lady started giving book lessons at church. She taught us to read and study the Bible. I came to see why they call it the good book. I memorized every begat and Beatitude that would turn back any bad attitude rising up in me.
- *"..timely and important read."—Kirkus, starred review
Praise for Loretta Little Looks Back:*"Art adds elegant portraits of land and family to these vivid tales..."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- *"...an unforgettable reading experience. Perfect for every library."—School Library Journal, starred review
- "...a gratifyingly unconventional format and a musical sequence of storytelling that may illuminate some stark moments of our country's history."—BCCB
- On Sale
- Sep 29, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers