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The story begins with Marguerite and Bailey arriving in Stamps, Arkansas, where they will live with their grandmother, Momma, after their parents' divorce. The children live with Momma and their uncle in the rear of their grandmother's merchandise store.
Marguerite relates that, during cotton-picking season, the cotton pickers would come into the store in the mornings filled with spirited exuberance and enthusiasm. Many would boast about picking enough cotton to pay off debts and to put enough food on the table. Cotton-picking season invariably added to Momma's workload, and she would get up at 4 am to accommodate the busy day ahead. Momma's merchandise store is also a lunch counter for cotton pickers.
Marguerite relishes the magic inherent in the infectious energy of the mornings, but she comes to realize that the evenings often bring dejection and frustration in the face of disappointed hopes and tarnished dreams. The pickers often find that their work has been hard and the pickings slim. Most never seem to pick enough cotton to stay current with their debts, especially those they owe Momma for store credit. Marguerite knows that she often hears pickers complaining about 'cheating houses, weighted scales, snakes, skimpy cotton, and dusty rows.' This is why the atmosphere is so markedly different in the evenings. Most of the workers return in defeat, because they have again failed to earn enough to sustain their families for the long term.
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