Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Muzzled Oxen: Reaping Cotton and Sowing Hope in 1920s Arkansas

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Muzzled Oxen: Reaping Cotton and Sowing Hope in 1920s Arkansas

Article excerpt

Muzzled Oxen: Reaping Cotton and Sowing Hope in 1920s Arkansas. By Genevieve Grant Sadler. (Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2014. Pp. 358. Foreword by Gareth Sadler, illustrations. $23.95, paper.)

Genevieve Grant Sadler keenly observed life in all its details and was a skilled writer. In this delightful memoir, she recalls her years in the cotton-growing culture of Yell County, Arkansas, during the 1920s.

Sadler, a native Californian, and her husband, Wayne, who had migrated west from Arkansas, moved to Yell County in 1920 to defend their title to the family's bottomland farms on the Arkansas and Petit Jean Rivers. They came as city-dwelling naifs, hopeful that they could make their living growing cotton while they settled their title to the land. That took seven years, at which point they then returned to California. During those years, Sadler wrote voluminous letters to her mother, who saved them, and used them as the basis for her memoir.

Sadler's narrative is very much one of an outsider, a stranger to the rhythms of cotton and sharecropping. She is shocked and horrified by what she witnesses, and she tries to shield her young sons from the effects of rural poverty. The Sadlers' world is populated by poor white tenant farmers and, only occasionally, African Americans who live in the bottomlands. The families surrounding the Sadlers are routinely filthy, malnourished, and ridden with malaria-but they are not stupid. Sadler seldom blames individuals, realizing that each family is trapped by the southern economic system as well as by endemic ill health. She regularly dispenses quinine, food, and clothing to those in need.

Despite the heartrending circumstances, the book shines with Sadler's unquenchable zest for life and her irrepressible curiosity about the place where she finds herself. She records in careful, gleeful detail both the flora and the fauna of Yell County, cataloging plants along the roadside as well as her lovingly tended flower and vegetable garden. She reports attentively the foods (both good and ill), the clothing (cotton and wool only; no silk), the housing (unrelentingly awful). Sadler loves music and recounts everything from the various shape-note singings at which she and Wayne are guests to the Viennese waltzes that they play on their Victrola.

Sadler's world is deeply gendered. …

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