When she was 12 or so, my grandmother’s father lost his arm to a sawmill blade.  Nana rarely spoke of her father, but I do remember her describing the fateful day Papa’s coworkers brought him to their house, heaving his mangled body onto their kitchen table, blooding dripping everywhere.

That moment becomes a pivotal scene in my novel, setting in motion a chain of far-reaching events.  Meanwhile, even as the fictional Papa relearns a host of new skills, there are plenty of things he can’t master with one arm–including his beloved pastime of whittling.  I don’t know if the real Papa actually whittled, but it isn’t out of the question. Whittling has been practiced by generations of my own family, and I treasure the few tiny masterpieces passed down to me over the years.   So it makes sense this could be a vehicle not only to demonstrate Papa’s determined recovery, but the bond of love between father and daughter.

   My greatgrandfather, Andrew, carved this tiny basket from a walnut shell.

When she realizes how much her father misses his hobby, Leola takes it upon herself to invent a substitute hand that can hold the piece of wood while the other one carves. It has to be something easy to rig up, using readily-available materials. But what could that be?

My research landed in some interesting places, especially from the field of occupational therapy–though nothing practical to Leola’s situation. But one day, while organizing a kitchen cabinet,  I came across the apple peeler we’d bought when my kids were  young and loved to make pies. There was the spike for holding the apple, the handle for turning the fruit as the peel is removed. Could this be the solution I (and Leola) needed?

I ran back to the Internet, discovering that, during the late 1800s,  apple peelers were considered the kitchen gadget every “modern” farm wife had to have.  I imagined Leola setting eyes on one such device, owned by her great-grandmother, and having an Aha! moment like mine: There it was, with its metal “arm” and sturdy “fingers,” and a clamp to hold everything in place. Like a vise only better. After some experimentation, Leola improvises a way to lock the shaft in place, using a small butter knife that can be easily removed so the carver can turn the object.

                 Late 1800s apple peeler

When she presents the ‘whittling arm’ to Papa, his eyes shine: He smiled, pulling two chairs near the whittling machine and picking up his penknife again. “Now, Rosalee, let’s see if I can’t teach you some of those techniques we were talking about the other day.” He winked at her sisters. “Mae, Karla, you watch, too, for soon enough, it’ll be your turn to try.” And then the whittler set to work.

This photo of a girl picking cotton in Oklahoma, c. 1919, was taken by child labor reformer, Lewis Hine. When he asked what she liked about the job, the girl responded, “Not much.” (The image on my book’s cover is also of this girl.)

I spent many childhood holidays on my grandparents’ farm in the ‘blacklands’ region of north Texas. Nana and PawPaw Joe’s house, built by my great-grandfather, was surrounded by cotton fields, which they rented to a local farmer.  I remember walking through those fields, dark earth crunching beneath my feet, “petting” the fluffy strands. The farmer even gave me sample plants, which I brought back to New York for show-and-tell.

But in researching my novel, ‘Til All These Things Be Done, I discovered a rotten core at the center of cotton’s popularity. If I’d grown up poor in the south, circa 1919, I would have had a different attitude toward that ubiquitous crop, with its history of special misery for children and people of color. Cotton has a long growing season in Texas–about two hundred days–so in the early 1900s, opportunities were plentiful to earn money in harvesting it. A teenager could pick 400 pounds of cotton in one day, earning about four dollars at a time when half a loaf of bread or two heads of cabbage cost five cents. While some children felt proud of their contributions through such labor, others, like my main character, Leola, would have resented it.   Cotton picking was backbreaking work. At the height of the harvest season, the Texas sun is merciless, the air thick with mosquitoes; stinging insects and snakes were always a threat.  On top of that, the bolls containing the cotton are sharp, and children often returned home from the fields with bloody, swollen fingers.

This photograph of a young cotton picker inspired the character, Jimmy Suggs.


Many African-Americans, prohibited in the Jim Crow south from working in other industries, had little choice but to pick cotton–which was why the fields were filled not only with Black women, children, and elders, but also men in their prime–usually assigned to more odious tasks like thinning the stubbornly rooted plants with a hoe.   Adding insult to injury, white farmers were notorious for cheating their less-educated Black pickers at weighing time.

Knowing this, and as much as Leola hates the work, she also appreciates that she’s not doomed to it forever. Eventually, she gets good enough at the task to be able to snatch the cotton from its boll neat as a pickpocket filching wallets at a county fair.  Hitting her picking-and-thinking stride, looking forward to the cold jar of Mama’s lemonade waiting under a tree, she’s able to occupy her mind with other things: reviewing material from her correspondence courses, daydreaming about her boyfriend, singing along to the hymns carried across the fields by the black workers, kept separate from whites as they were even in this shared misery.


While researching my novel, I was stunned to discover this photograph of young cotton pickers by Lewis Hine, taken at the orphanage where my grandmother would reside a few years later.


The same cotton fields as they appeared when I visited that orphanage–now a foster home–a few years ago.