Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

★★★★★ (5/5)

Down there on the tobacco road no one ever laughed.

This is an incredibly powerful and tragic tale depicting the Depression Era and its effects on a destitute family, the Lesters. Extreme indigence doesn’t even begin to describe the plight of this family that has gone year after year without adequate resources of survival. Each day, hunger gnaws at their insides, depleting them of any impetus that might result in motivation to leave their land, settle in the city and begin working in mills. They are constrained by the heinous cycle of poverty in which they live and eventually wither away.

When Jeeter got ready to go somewhere, he filled the lard pail to overflowing, jumped in, and drove until the water splashed out and the engine locked up with heat. He would get out then and look for a creek so he could fill the pail again. The whole car was like that. Chickens had roosted on it, when there were chickens at the Lesters’ to roost, and it was speckled like a guinea-hen.

Unhealthy adulation of land

 It’s in my blood—burning broom-sedge and plowing in the ground this time of year. I did it for near about fifty years, and my Pa and his Pa before him was the same kind of men. Us Lesters sure like to stir the earth and make plants grow in it. I can’t move off to the cotton mills like the rest of them do. The land has got a powerful hold on me

Jeeter Lester, a father of seventeen children, reveres the land his ancestors left him. But the soil which he worships so much, does not provide for him anymore. Year after year, crops have died out either owing to some natural calamity or a dearth of resources which are required to plough and harvest the crops.

Maybe I ain’t got much sense, but I know it ain’t intended for me to work in the mills. The land was where I was put at the start, and it’s where I’m going to be at the end

Time and time again, his ailing wife Ada and neighbouring farmers have counselled him to move to the city where working for mills would provide just enough subsistence for their survival. But Jeeter is stubborn in his resolve to never abandon his lands to work for the city folk.

They ain’t like me, because I think more of the land than I do about staying in a durn cotton mill. You can’t smell no sedge fire up there, and when it comes time to break the land for planting, you feel sick inside but you don’t know what’s ailing you

Can we fault Jeeter for his uncompromising attachment to a piece of barren land? The answer to this is subjective. Having spent his entire life on an acre of plot left by his father and grand-father, Jeeter knows nothing better than the sights and smells of the soil. Despite extreme privation, his wretched house and empty land provide a spiritual solace in the hopeless circumstances. His forefathers were never prosperous but they made do on the same land to which Jeeter has attributed some hopes now. But it must also be taken into account that no one in the past had to deal with such gruelling times as Jeeter does now. His own children had run away to far-off towns and now lived relatively comfortable lives.

There was an inherited love of the land in Jeeter that all his disastrous experiences with farming had failed to take away

Another reason for Jeeter’s persistence on staying back is fear of the city folk in which the affluent reign. He has been mistreated by those in whom he put blind trust in. His benefactor, who would often let him buy supplies on credit, abandoned him without provisions for the future. The loan company, whose assistance Jeeter seeks with the cotton crop, exploit his dependence on them, and in the end get away with more than three hundred dollars, leaving Jeeter with mere seven dollars for an entire year’s work.

He would rather die of starvation than leave the land. In seven years his views of the subject had not been altered; and if anything, he was more determined than ever to remain where he was at all cost.

For Jeeter, the rich not only accumulate money through draining resources of the poor and hoarding finances during difficult times by not coming to their aid, but also hound them in case any farmer decides to be self-dependent. In his mind, Jeeter equates the corruption of the rich with city life that he so despises.

Though it sometimes looks like a rich man will never help the poor; whereas the poor people will give away everything they has to help somebody who ain’t got nothing

Lassitude – a cause and effect of poverty

Jeeter made a false start somewhere nearly every day

Indolence is deeply ingrained in the Lesters. It can be both a reason for their impoverished circumstances and a consequence of it. Every day, Jeeter undertakes a vow to till the land, borrow a mule or sell slabs of wood in the city. But he always comes up with an excuse at the last minute to delay his plans. The Jeeters’ take “tomorrow” for granted. Similarly, for years Jeeter had been arranging to take his daughter Ellie May to the city for an operation for her harelip. But each time, he would come back home with a ruse to avoid taking her. Despite having some money to accomplish certain tasks, Jeeter’s lethargic approach to life betrays his own intentions of survival which often results in hunger and uncertainty about where the next meal would come from.

He could sit calmly and bear the feeling of hunger, but to be compelled to live and look each day at the unplowed fields was an agony he believed he could not stand many more days

But once again, it can be reasoned that the Lester’s know no better. In times of great hardship, they live and hope to survive for only the present day. Jeeter cannot link his daytime sloth with hunger pangs at night. For him, and for all the Lester’s, human condition is defined by distinct circumstances which have absolutely no connection to each other.

Here, blackjack wood has been employed as a perfect metaphor for Jeeter:

The blackjack never grew much taller than a man’s head; it was a stunted variety of oak that used its sap in toughening the fibres instead of growing new layers and expanding the old, as other trees did

A warped dependency on religion

He won’t let us stay here and starve. He’ll send us some snuff and rations pretty soon

The Lesters have a skewed view on religion, using God as a crutch, at times blaming Him for their penury and at other times appeasing Him with false promises and indulgences. For them, the entity of a Creator solely exists to serve them and not the other way around. They consider their destitution as a favour upon God and expect Him to make up to them for their difficult circumstances. Since fate spelled their misery for them, a higher being owes them opportunities of reprieve – which should largely come about in shape of financial assistance.

God made the land, but you don’t see Him building durn cotton mills. That’s how I know better than to go up there like the rest of them. I stay where God made a place for me

The Lesters sin without remorse and seek absolution without any misgivings. They are not hesitant for a moment to fall back on debauched morals once they are assured of God’s mercy. They bear absolutely no responsibility for their actions or think over the repercussions. Their hand-to-mouth existence can be partly held liable for discrepancies in their beliefs and practices.

This distorted view on religion can be further understood by an excellent instance, in which Sister Bessie, the local preacher, tells Jeeter of Dude’s sermon against wearing black shirts. She is not inclined to explain the motives or teachings behind this bizarre homily and Jeeter blindly accepts her reasonings.

Preachers has got to preach against something. It wouldn’t do them no good to preach for everything. They got to be against something every time

Concluding Thoughts

The story has a brilliant take on the dehumanizing forces of poverty, which can strip one of basic foresight and the ability to weigh one’s actions and its ramifications. The tragedy of the novel is beset in its repetitive but candid dialogues, using Southern dialect to convey the anguish of Depression Era. We are incensed by some of the choices the characters make, but also forgive them for their innocent unworldliness. Much of their limited thinking is rooted in romantic notions of religion and belonging, manipulating either to suit their purpose. Their misfortune is fated but its progression is a result of their choices.

The mills is sort of like automobiles—they’re all right to fool around in and have a good time in, but they don’t offer no love like the ground does. The ground sort of looks out after the people who keeps their feet on it. When people stand on planks in buildings all the time, and walk around on hard streets, the ground sort of loses interest in the human

Beautifully crafted sentences

  • An intelligent employment of his land, stocks, and implements would have enabled Jeeter, and scores of others who had become dependent upon Captain John, to raise crops for food, and crops to be sold at a profit. Co-operative and corporate farming would have saved them all
  • But the real reason was because everybody had always burned the woods and fields each spring, and they saw no cause for abandoning life-long habits
  • I’ll miss them long yellow curls hanging down her back, and that pretty face of hers, too. Aside from that, I don’t know of a prettier sight to see than to look in her pale blue eyes early in the morning before the sun got up so high it threw too much light in them. Early in the morning they was the prettiest things a man could ever want to look at. But they was pretty any time of the day, and sometimes I used to sit and shake all over, for wanting to squeeze her so hard
  • Seeing them long yellow curls hanging down her back used to make me cry sometimes. I’d look at her pretty hair and eyes so long that I thought I’d go crazy if I didn’t touch her and see deep down into her eyes. But she wouldn’t never let me come close to her, and that’s what made the tears fall out of my eyes, I reckon
  • Neither of them had thought of Mother Lester again until they saw her lying on the sand. She was procumbent, and her face was mashed on the ground, but she had moved several feet closer to the house.

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