Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Tobacco Road (copy)

Is Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell meant to be taken seriously or is it a comedic tour de force? I read the book cold-turkey. This is how I like to describe a book in which I lack prior knowledge of plot, characterization, or theme. I merely pick the book up to try a new author or in this case I liked the title.

I was halfway through the book before I stopped to read the small bio, brief description, and critic comments located on the back cover. The New York Herald Tribune claims, “Mr. Caldwell’s humor, like Mark Twain’s, has as its source an imagination that stirs the emotions of the reader.”

Ah, Mark Twain(ish) humor, it is supposed to be funny. That changes everything! The characters and their disregard for human life, other than their own, was a little disheartening to read. Knowing now that it is a farce, allows me to really enjoy the story full of unbelievable characters.

Leading the role for most unbelievable is main character, Jeeter, patriarch of the Lester family. Jeeter is all about Jeeter. He even shoos his own mother from the dinner table. Ada, his wife and producer of 17 children, is a quiet woman, but lately, “hunger has loosened her tongue,” and made her a trite annoying. All of the children except for Dude, 16, and Ellie May, 17, have left home for the big city of Augusta, Georgia and its cotton mills. The youngest child, Pearl, 12, was traded to Lov Bensey for food. Grandmother Lester is allowed to haunt the house as long as she stays out of the way. The family actually wills her to wither and blow away.

The book was originally published in 1932, and the timeline is concurrent with the Depression. The Lesters have become sharecroppers on their own original Lester land after Jeeter squanders their assets with fraudulent home loans. As the story opens the family is subsiding on corn meal, snuff, and chicory, while Grandmother Lester forages off the land.

I am so thankful this book is comedic in nature. Not, laugh-track, ha-ha funny such as Beverly Hillbillies or Green Acres, but rather a relief these aren’t real people. The character Elly May Clampett is way more forgiving to the eyes than poor, hair-lipped Ellie May Lester. Oh, and how misleading is the title, where’s the tobacco?