25 March 2009

Tobacco Road - Erskine Caldwell

A powerful moving novel of American despondency, set amidst the backdrop of farmers facing the consequences of the poverty that urbanization has wrought upon the land.

Doesn't that sound like a "real" review. I think I'm starting to get pretty good at these things. Someone hire me right now....but wait, you probably won't be able to offer me a better deal than the federal government does, so forget that idea.

Caldwell's novel centers around the Lesters, a family of Georgian sharecroppers, as they deal with the prospects of living on borrowed land and the borrowed time of the Great Depression. A contemporary of Steinbeck, Tobacco Road actually predates The Grapes of Wrath, and I wonder what inspiration Steinbeck drew from Caldwell's work. Although set in different parts of the country, the plight of sharecroppers in the south is depressingly similar to that of migrant workers in California.

More than a novel set in a time and a place, this work seems to transcend these element and reflect more of a "human condition". In Jeeter Lester, the novel's protagonist, we have at once a man who has sold his 12 year old daughter for hopes of little more than a turnip now and then, and at the same time, a man who's deeply tied to the land, even though he is too lazy to work it, he continues to hope - beyond reason - that God will provide for him.

In the same category of Willa Cather and John Steinbeck's works, I greatly recommend Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell.

It wasn't intended for a man with the smell of the land in him to live in a mill in Augusta. Maybe it's all right for some people to do that but God never meant for me to do it. He put me on the land to start with, and I ain't leaving it. I'd feel just like a chicken with my head cut off living shut up in a mill all the time.