I could just leave this review of Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell blank and refer you back to the blog post headline. But that wouldn’t adequately convey what an amazing book it is.
When I was browsing Audible recently looking for books to listen to on my commute I stumbled across Tobacco Road and vaguely remembered it was on the Modern Library list of Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. (I also immediately thought of the amazing song Tobacco Road by Lou Rawls.) Needing something for that day’s commute, I took a chance.
As I listened I wasn’t sure what to make of the book. The first five chapters seemed to be about nothing but God and a bag of turnips. Well, and the fact that the forty-something Lov couldn’t get his 12-year old wife Pearl to share his bed with him. But even that discussion quickly turns to turnips. When Lov tries to convince Pearl’s father Jeeter Lester to talk with her, Jeeter makes his help conditional on getting some of those turnips. Lov refuses and rather cruelly begins eating raw turnips in front of Jeeter and his starving mother, wife, and daughter. This goes on for some time. Then, Ellie May, Jeeter’s 18-year old daughter with a harelip, is so comically in need of a man that she begins to rub all over the equally desperate Lov who is then distracted enough for Jeeter to steel the bag of turnips.
After making a joke about God and turnips on Twitter it was suggested that the book was supposed to be funny, not necessarily just tragic. This was bit of a revelation to me. Up to that point I could only think how miserable and ignorant the characters are. And they are. But when you believe that Caldwell was being satirical and probably trying to provide commentary on the plight of poverty-stricken white farmers in rural Georgia in 1932, the whole thing takes on more dimension.
There is something disturbing about the way that Caldwell draws one in to wallow in the tragedy and to laugh at the suffering characters. I felt bad as I blamed these victims of circumstance for their own misfortune and laughed at them along the way. It was the same kind of feeling I get when I watch Honey Boo-Boo. But it is hard not to laugh. Case in point: Jeeter’s 16-year old son Dude (yes, his name is Dude) agrees to marry a forty-something preacher woman who bribes him with the promise of a new automobile. She is ready to take all of her $800 in savings (a HUGE amount at that time for these poor people) to buy a new automobile so she can
bed wed young Dude.
For his part Dude almost seems more interested in the automobile’s horn than anything else. He can’t get enough of sounding the horn. The shiny, brand new car gets totally trashed almost the second they drive it off the lot and just about every time they take it anywhere. And after spending $800 on a brand new car that is so quickly trashed, they are all still starving and don’t have a decent roof over their heads, or have adequate clothes. It kind of makes you want to scream in despair but it’s also funny.
Is this book cruel to be kind, or just plain cruel? I can’t exactly tell. What I do know is that Caldwell crafts the story brilliantly. I relished in it as I read it and it continues to grow in my esteem the longer I think about it.