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Tobacco Road

Tobacco Road - Erskine Caldwell, Lewis Nordan Erskine Caldwell was the son of a Presbyterian minister. It seems his Caldwell ancestors hailed from an area where one of my Caldwell ancestors came from, although the two families appear to have been unrelated. As a good Presyberian, Erskine Caldwell couldn't help moralizing about personal responsibility, waste and lasciviousness, even if it was 3 years into the Great Depression. But as a rain-hardened Celt, a certain part of him seemed to be enjoying the craic. It struck me quite forcefully in the first chapters that I would be enjoying this humourous and mildly sarcastic send-up of self-destroying do-nothings far more than Angela's Ashes, which seemed like suffering without the benefit of 50 years hindsight.

The humour goes a long way in explaining how anyone as selfish as Jeeter Lester could make an entertaining and even sympathetic protagonist. Jeeter is at times brutally efficient, when it comes to denying food to his starving mother or assessing the marriage prospects of his daughter with a cleft palate. This is an ugly human being. The brutal, self-centred, but pleasure-loving assessment of other people plays out like a very funny home movie. I wouldn't be surprised if "The Beverley Hillbillies" and their car got some inspiration from these miserable, hilarious equivalents. Some of Jeeter's sexcapades would seem beyond rational possibility, except that a few modern Facebook sites from Ireland and England are so reminiscent of those intrusive sex jokes and motivations.

Caldwell makes these idiots sound sympathetic. But he does it without using The Great Depression as an excuse. He returns time and again to Jeeter's "love of the land" as his only reason for not making money in the cotton mills, as everyone else does. Really, the cotton mills were booming during The Great Depression? Possibly like a good Presbyterian preaching to the holier-than-thou, Caldwell isn't accepting grand excuses or, generally speaking, personal failure. Caldwell even goes so far as to suggest that none of the cotton farmers knew the basics of farming, and ended up burning down the trees on unproductive land every year, just because burning the land was simply tradition. I'm not sure I have time to research whether such burnings helped fertilize the fields, but was this minister's son turned comedy writer also a farmer to die for?

The saddest lesson of the book is the effect of deprivation on families. It seems that Caldwell concluded that Jeeter was simply wicked at story's end, but that he and his family became sympathetic because forces greater than them but less than God had turned their people against each other, in the most brutally possible way.