Tobacco Road ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Erskine Caldwell’s venerable American classic, Tobacco Road, was first published in 1932. It’s the story of a few days in the life of Jeeter Lester, a lazy, ignorant, starving, dirt-poor Georgia farmer. It’s spring and Jeeter wants nothing more than to plant a crop of cotton, but he doesn’t have any seed-cotton or guano (fertilizer), no money to buy it with, and no mule for plowing.
Jeeter and his wife Ada had seventeen children, but only two still remain at home: Dude, a witless lout of sixteen, and Ellie May, a girl who doesn’t have a chance in life because she has a harelip and Jeeter doesn’t have enough money or enough initiative to take her to the doctor and get the lip “sewn up.” Jeeter’s wife, Ada, has pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease; her fondest wish is to have a “stylish dress of the right length” to be buried in. Jeeter’s old mother lives with the family, but she never says anything; if she speaks or tries to steal food, Jeeter or Ada will clop her on the head.
Jeeter and Ada have married off their twelve-year-old daughter, Pearl, to Lov Bensey. Lov is upset because Pearl sleeps on a “pallet on the floor” and won’t let him touch her and won’t get into bed with him. When Lov comes by the Lester home with a bag full of turnips that he walked seven miles to get (which Jeeter is trying to steal), he is crying over Pearl but is drawn to Ellie May, even with her harelip. Ellie May is also drawn to Lov because she is lonely and her prospects of getting a man are slim. You can feel the sexual tension between them.
Sister Bessie Rice is a self-styled preacher. She doesn’t have a nose, but she has two nostrils flat on her face. “No nose would ever grow on me,” she says. When people are talking to her, they find themselves “looking down her nose holes.” Besides not having a nose, she’s about forty and a widow with eight hundred dollars in insurance money from her deceased husband. When she catches sight of sixteen-year-old Dude and has a petting (and rubbing) session with him, she decides she will marry him and make him a preacher. Dude isn’t much interested in marrying Sister Bessie until she tells him of her intention to go to town and buy a brand-new automobile with her insurance money. They get married (or at least get the license) and, after Sister Bessie buys the automobile, they ride all over the place, with Dude driving and blowing the horn like crazy. The same day they buy the automobile, Dude crashes into the back of a wagon, and from there, they set about tearing up the car as if that had been there intention all along. Every time they get a new dent, they say, “It don’t bother the drivin’ of it none.”
Being dirt poor and not having anything to eat is tragic, isn’t it? A girl having a harelip or a woman not having a nose is also tragic. What happens to Jeeter’s mother at the end of the book is tragic, but also funny. We don’t take the Lesters seriously enough to feel sorry for them because they are so hapless and ignorant. There’s humor in pathos, and no American novel does it better than Tobacco Road.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp