Book #91-Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

By God and by Jesus (oft repeated by Tobacco Road’s Jeeter Lester), this was a distressing read.  If this is any indication of the effects of severe poverty and economic depression, we’d better get our heads out of our proverbial backsides posthaste.

The depression era Lester family is living, or rather, eking out a living south of Augusta, Georgia.  Once cotton farmers, they lose their plantation and then their home to modern equipment and rapacious money lenders.  Without food, money or purpose, only hunger remains and serves to drive each family member on their own singular purpose with nary a thought for one another.

Five of the 17 Lester children do not survive childbirth, 9 have moved out and don’t keep in touch,  12-year-old Pearl Jeeter has just been reluctantly married off to a neighbor and only Dude and Ellie Mae remain at home with their parents and grandmother.  They are all self interested and extremely indifferent to the feelings and well-being of one another.

The Lester patriarch, Jeeter seems destined for tomorrows.  He’ll chop some wood tomorrow, he’ll get some guano tomorrow, he’ll take his daughter to the doctor tomorrow…Alas, tomorrow comes and goes as do the weeks, as do the years and the only thing that gets done is the decaying of the Lester’s leased home and land.

Wife to Jeeter, Ada Lester is the epitome of  hopelessness.  While she still hopes for scraps of food, she no longer expects her husband will provide for the family and asks only that he promises that she will  be buried in a decent dress.  Let’s just say her husband does not fulfill his promise through no fault of his own.

The youngest of the Lester children, Pearl, whose paternity is doubtful, resists her role as wife to neighbor, Lov Bensey.  She refuses to sleep in his bed and relegates herself to a pallet on the floor.  When last heard of, she has run off and destined for a life just a notch above poverty.  I prayed for her.

The old grandmother, whose name is never uttered,  is a sad and pitiable woman.  Aware she is an unwelcome mouth to feed, she must fend for herself by hiding crumbs of food and relying on the rare instances when there is any food at all in the house.   After she is accidentally backed over by a car, her family does not come to her aid, but shrugs, assuming she’s dead or soon will be and leaves her lying and bloodied on the ground.  This is gut wrenching disregard in its ugliest fashion.  I wanted to cry, but my shock and outrage prevented it.

Apparently shunned by his fellow Georgians, Mr. Caldwell nonetheless carried on, much to the delight of many.  I’d love to have him share his experience of his exoneration and counter suit over his arrest for publishing God’s Little Acre.  Perhaps he could share some of his raw writing talents while we take a stroll down Tobacco Road…

My rating for Tobacco Road  is a 10 out of 10.

To see the entire list, visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.

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Next up, William Kennedy’s Ironweed…


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