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Erskine Caldwell: Tobacco Road

This is probably the only Caldwell novel read today but it is a fine read. It tells the story of the Lester family, a bunch of Georgia hillbillies. The main character, Jeeter Lester, has inherited the land from his grandfather and father, but the three Lesters have managed to run up debts and lose all their land. The Lesters still live on the same land but they don’t own it. It is owned by Captain John Harmon but he has effectively abandoned the land as cotton growing is too difficult on this over-exploited land. He lets his tenants remain there but does not do any repairs or, almost as importantly, does not advance any credit for sowing and planting. At the start of the story, the Lesters are virtually destitute, with no assets, nothing to sell, no crops and no prospects and a house that is falling down. Jeeter and his wife, Ada, had seventeen children but all but two have gone, leaving only Dude, who is not very smart, and Ellie May, who has a harelip and has therefore not been able to get a husband. Not only have the children gone, there has been no contact between parents and children since their departure, something which Jeeter and Ada occasionally lament. Only two of the other children appear in this novel. Pearl has married Lov at age fourteen but has not only refused to have any physical contact with Lov but has even refused to speak to him. Lov has one of the few paid jobs in the county, filling the railroad coal chute. Most of the others have gone to Augusta to work in the cotton mills. We hear of Tom, who has a job elsewhere but wants nothing to do with any of his family.

The story opens with Lov having bought some turnips and is now dragging them back home. He wants to avoid the Lester property as he knows his in-laws will try and steal his turnips but he needs to speak to Jeeter about Pearl and persuading her to sleep in Lov’s bed. Lester is vainly trying to repair the shredded tires on his battered car but seeing Lov approach, he stops that work. It is only a matter of time before Jeeter manages to trick Lov out of the turnips. Bessie Rice, a woman in her late thirties and the widow of a preacher, suspecting Jeeter is up to no good, comes by and decides, almost at once, that she is interested in Dude as a future husband and preacher, though Dude is only sixteen. The next day she makes up her mind and takes him to nearby Fuller where she marries him and then spends her life savings on a new car, with the intent of going round the area, preaching with Dude.

Much of the rest of this relatively short novel concerns the adventures with the car. They drive around and then help Jeeter by hauling his wood to Augusta to sell (which he doesn’t). In a short space of time, Dude, who is driving, manages to crash the car into a wagon, killing the driver and smashing the front fender of the car, drive over a stump, damaging the axle, drive to August without any oil, thereby wrecking the engine, reverse into a pine stump, splitting the rear of the car and run over his grandmother, killing her. Somehow, car and driver keep going. Jeeter and Ada are killed when their house burns down, Ellie May goes to Lov when Pearl runs away to Augusta and Dude and Bessie stay together.

Caldwell’s novel shocked 1930s readers, with its frank description of sex and violence though, by today’s standards, it is very tame. Caldwell tells the story of a people who seem almost beyond help but, instead of telling it as a realistic, hard-hitting, heart-wrenching story, he makes it one of great humour. We might feel sorry for Jeeter Lester but, above all, we can only laugh at him and his feeble attempts to survive. He prepares his land, though he knows he does not have any seed, any fertiliser and any mule for ploughing. Moreover, he does so by burning, not because it is a good idea to do so (Caldwell makes it clear that it isn’t a good idea) but because everyone always has done it that way. Caldwell shows little sympathy for the suffering of the people – not for the poor grandmother run over nor for the poor black man killed when Dude hits his wagon while driving Bessie’s car and certainly not for Jeeter, Ada and Dude. He does show a little sympathy for Pearl and maybe for Ellie May but even they are left adrift at the end. But the strength of the novel is the wit he uses to show a people hopelessly lost.

Publishing history

First published 1932 by Charles Scribner’s Sons