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#91….Tobacco Road

December 2, 2009

As a book blogger, I try to read lots of reviews of the books that I’m reading or have read, just to see if I’m way off base with what I’m thinking about a book. Every once in a while, I’ll see a review where book editors and professional bloggers way smarter than me have all raved about a book and how profound/hilarious/interesting/etc it was (i.e. The Ginger Man). It is then I have to step back from the computer, and ask myself, What did they see about this book that I didn’t?? Am I really that dense?

A good example of this is Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. From what I read, this book most likely was not supposed to be funny. In his review of Tobacco Road on his website, Doug Shaw commented that “a less perfect writer would have made you laugh with the events of this story”, and many of the reviews I read on LibraryThing.com didn’t think it was funny at all, or categorized the book as “dark comedy”. Well, I gotta tell ya. For all the laughing I didn’t do with The Ginger Man, I more than made up for it with Tobacco Road. I laughed like a hyena throughout this book, to the point where I was forced to read excerpts like the following to my husband and daughter because they couldn’t understand why I had tears rolling down my face:

“Now Lord, I’ve got something special to pray about. I don’t ask favors unless they is things I want pretty bad, so this time I’m asking a favor for Pearl. I want You to make her stop sleeping on a pallet on the floor while Brother Lov has to sleep by himself in the bed. Make Pearl get in the bed, Lord, and make her stay there where she belongs. She ain’t got no right to sleep on a pallet on the floor when Lov’s got a bed for her. Now, You make her stop acting like she’s been, and put her in the bed when night comes. I was a good wife to my former husband. I never slept on no pallet on the floor…. And when I marry another man, I ain’t going to do that neither. ….So You tell Pearl to quit that.”

Hilarious, right? Well, maybe you had to be there.

The lowest rung of Southern society is brought to life with the Lester family in Tobacco Road. If you’ve read Gone with the Wind, think the Slattery family, the “poor whites” who barely existed except off the charity of their rich planter neighbors. The patriarch of the family, Jeeter Lester, loves farming more than anything else in the world, although he’s so broke that he hasn’t been able to buy any fertilizer or seeds to actually farm, and his family of five is slowly starving to death in what could euphemistically be called a shack in rural Georgia. The Lesters used to own all the land around them, but they became so poor that they mortgaged it all away, and what credit they had was cut off when their lone planter neighbor moved away. Most of the other Lester children have gone off to work in the cotton mills, but Jeeter loves to farm too much to do that. Since he clearly can’t farm, his career consists of begging, starving and whining, not necessarily in that order.

The majority of the book had me in stunned disbelief, as I watched this family get chance after chance to improve their standing in life, and then watched them blow the chance in the worst possible way, or watched them resist making any changes whatsoever. Were they so ignorant that they couldn’t see opportunities to take advantage of, or just so lazy that they couldn’t be bothered, or just unable to adapt to change? A tough call there. Jobs at the mill, where money could be made, were there for the taking; yet no one in the Lester household even talked about a steady job. Money that could have been spent on seeds or food was spent on stupid stuff like snuff. The amount of time Jeeter spent begging from neighbors and relatives could have been well used for more profitable endeavors. Yet he clings to his love for the land and farming, when it’s pretty clear to everyone that he can’t do it.

To me, this family illustrated Darwin’s notion of “survival of the fittest” to a T. People who don’t capitalize on their environments and/or aren’t motivated enough to do even the most basic things to maintain existence get winnowed out. I think I would have felt more pity for them had they actually tried to save themselves and failed. It’s hard to feel sorry for people who don’t help themselves out. Therefore, my alternative was to laugh at their stupid choices and tragic-comedic fates. So I did.

I enjoyed this book very much. Definitely a sleeper at #91 on the ML list.

Grade: A-

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