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Tobacco Road
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94 of 104 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2002
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Erskine Caldwell's folk carnival 'Tobacco Road' (1932) documents the last days in the lives of Jeeter and Ada Lester, poverty-stricken and permanently befuddled sharecroppers living in rural Georgia during the Great Depression.

The tragic elements, initially almost undiscernable, strike sharply and rapidly in quick lunges before vanishing again beneath the book's brilliant comic surface.

The novel has an archetypal framework: Patriarch Jeeter, dispossessed of his ancestral land, upon which nothing will now grow but "broom sedge and scrub oak," perpetually dreams of bringing his dead and depleted soil to life.

While musing on his farm's infertility, and when not lusting after the women around him, Jeeter, a father of twelve, is preoccupied with ending his own ability to reproduce via self-castration. Like the Hanged Man of the Tarot, habitually procrastinating Jeeter is continually hamstrung and locked in the stupefying eternal moment.

Caldwell is particularly cruel in drawing his female characters: simple-minded and otherwise beautiful daughter Ellie May has a disfiguring harelip; man-crazy, self-appointed preacher Bessie has a good figure and a set of nostrils but no nose, the unnamed, unspeaking grandmother is starved by the other family members, who will no longer acknowledge her; struggling wife Ada, who has not always been faithful, dreams only of having a dress of correct length and current style to be buried in; and twelve year-old child bride Pearl has lost the will to speak and sleeps on the floor to avoid her adult husband's sexual advances.

In contrast, Jeeter and handsome teenage son Dude are merely imbecilic, gullible, and grossly self-serving.

All of the characters are God-fearing and largely well-intentioned towards one another, though uneducated and of extremely limited consciousness: they are guiltless of malice, if not of responsibility.

In a scene intended to shock, newlyweds Dude and Bessie accidentally kill a Black man, but think nothing of it.

But this blank, spontaneous indifference to reality and the reality of other people is what makes the 'Tobacco Road' hilariously funny.

The ancient grandmother meets a painful and grueling death through another careless accident with the car; Jeeter discusses Ellie May's disfigurement in front of her without the slightest regard for her feelings; Bessie, perpetually in heat, nearly rapes unwilling, unresponsive, 16 year-old Dude; car salesmen gather to enthusiastically stare down Bessie's nostril holes and insult her; Jeeter attacks his son-in-law and steals the bag of turnips he walked has seven miles to obtain; Ellie May casually masturbates in the front yard; the whole family gathers, tribe-like, to watch Dude and Bessie make awkward love on their wedding night; the Lesters destroy a new automobile (a symbol of the modern, productive, urbanized world they will never be a part of) within a few days due to recklessness and the family tradition of being unable to respect and maintain any material possession.

Like many of the characters in Muriel Spark's novels, the cast of 'Tobacco Road' are only vaguely aware, if aware at all, of themselves as moral, spiritual, or ethical beings, despite the occasional religious trappings around them.

This lack of moral awareness, "and the comedy that arises from it" is what fuels 'Tobacco Road.'

Caldwell has written the lightest of black comedies, and it is to his credit that he is capable of allowing his audience to embrace and enjoy these occasionally vigorous lost souls, even though only tragedy seems to lay ahead for all.

The universal literary and commercial success of 'Tobacco Road' in 1932 (the novel was adapted into a long-running Broadway play, and a bowdlerized John Ford film in 1941) gave new life to the country bumpkin genre in the 20th-century.

Its success helped usher in the Ma And Pa Kettle films, the Li'l Abner comic strip, some of Tennessee William's short stories, and classic American television series such as 'The Andy Griffith Show' (1960-1968), 'The Beverly Hillbillies' (1962-1971), 'Petticoat Junction' (1963-1970), and 'Green Acres' (1965-1971).

Despite the many ways in which sexual intentions go awry throughout the novel, 'Tobacco Road' has a natural, healthy approach to sexuality, as does 'God's Little Acre,' the equally-successful book which followed it.

In this age of political correctness and sexual suspiciousness, the book's vibrant acceptance of sexuality as one of life's givens is admirable.

Some Southerners, at the time of its publication and continuing to the present, have objected to the book as an indictment of Southern culture. But 'Tobacco Road' is clearly a soulful high satire, and its characters are intentionally caricatures of the basest order.

Ultimately, 'Tobacco Road' is a novel which seductively illuminates and instructs while it seamlessly entertains.
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76 of 84 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 2003
Format: Paperback
If you were to ask me if I liked "Tobacco Road," my answer would be "I guess so.....I think."
It's hard to decide whether or not I liked this book because it's hard to decide what exactly this book is. It's a wisp of a thing really, about 150 pages of nothing happening. Yet it's not boring. There are parts of it that I found funny, but they are so grotesque that I'm not sure they're supposed to be funny. I wanted to sympathize with these poor, pathetic people living like animals, yet I didn't, because they so frustratingly refuse to do anything to help themselves.
Erskine Caldwell's story involves a couple of days in the life of a dismally poor one-time sharecropper and those members of his family who haven't yet left home, scraping a living out of the dust in Depression-era Georgia. Like I said, not a lot happens in the way of plot until the hurried ending, which feels tacked on by Caldwell at the last minute as if to justify to his readers why they spent their time reading his book.
If you thought the Joads of "The Grapes of Wrath" had it bad, wait until you get a load of the Lesters. This family has none of the dignity displayed by Steinbeck's characters, and it's this difference that ultimately makes the Lesters not worth caring about. Jeeter, the family's patriarch, stubborly refuses to leave his land, even though other poor families are finding opportunities and means for providing for their own families in the nearby mill towns. Jeeter justifies his refusal to leave by taking on a martyred air and feigning a noble attachment to the land, but in reality he's victim to an intensely lazy malaise that will prevent him from ever doing anything to help himself. He thinks the children who have left home never to return or even communicate with their parents have acted selfishly and callously (mostly because they refuse to send money home), but who can blame them? I wouldn't ever return home either.
I think this book is supposed to be funny; the back cover of the book compares Caldwell to Mark Twain. However, if that's the case, then this book borders on the appalling. Caldwell's tone throughout is snide and nasty--he invites us to laugh at the Lesters and their stupidity. And if we're supposed to be laughing, then one wonders what Caldwell's purpose was in writing this. If we're meant to simply read this book as a comedy, then I'm repelled at the pointlessness of the whole enterprise. I don't truly believe this was Caldwell's sole purpose, yet the book also fails as an indictment of the social institutions responsible for reducing families to this state of destitution.
"Tobacco Road" falls into that category of books that you might as well read, since it's held in high esteem by the literary establishment and will take virtually no time to finish. I think you'll be moderately entertained, but I also wouldn't be surprised if you have the the urge to scratch your head when it's all over and wonder what in the world you just sat through.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2005
Format: Paperback
Tobacco Road must be one of the funniest and yet heart breaking American fiction I have ever read. The patriarch, Jeeter Lester, twentieth century Don Quixote, also a predecessor to Al Bundy, selfish, lazy procrastinator, who would do anything , say anything to have his way. Every year he would plan on tilling his land to grow cotton but he is so broke that no body would lend him any money for seeds or a mule for this endeavor.

He and his wife live in a ramshackle house with two children,18 year old Ellie May who has a congenital deformity and a 16 year old imbecile, Dude, along with Jeeter's mother, who is completely ignored by the family. They had 17 children, 5 died and the rest flew the coop as soon as they could from this mad house except Ellie May and Dude. They have an equally comic neighbor, Bessie, a widow in her late 30's, who ends up marrying Dude. She lures Dude by promising him a brand new car with the money she received from her husband's insurance. She is a promiscuous nit wit and pretends to be a preacher! This "preaching", she contends is inherited from her husband. Using this logic she wants to marry Dude and make him a preacher.

Jeu d'es-prit of the book is when Jeeter, Bessie and Dude take the brand new automobile to Augusta to sell wood and end up spending the night in a sleazy motel, where Bessie is taken to different rooms by various men. Jeeter and Dude sleep in one bed, wondering why the motel owner keeps changing Bessie's room and why don't they leave her alone so she can get some rest. However, Bessie never complaints.

The book reminded me of Steinbeck's unforgettable paisanos of Tortilla Flat. It is a MUST read.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2003
Format: Paperback
I tried reading Tobacco Road several times in the past, but could never get past the first few pages. Now, I finally have read the whole thing, and I'm glad I did. This book could be tucked, whole, into the Canterbury Tales: it would fit very well there.
If you don't read much, but thought the ATM machine theft sub-plot in the 2002 Ice Cube movie "Barbershop" was hysterical, this whole book is a story like that-- hairbrained ideas spinning horribly out of control. It's really funny on the top, but sad and inevitable underneath.
Caldwell breaks with the silliness right in the middle of the book, inserting a chapter that explains the forces that have brought his characters to this particular brink. It's a bit of a change-up, so I suspect many readers skim over it. But the true story, the devastating cultural and economic shifts that occured as the region turned from tobacco to cotton and from agriculture to manufacture is a key part of understanding the South. And if you want to understand and feel hopeful about the future of the rural, agricultural, and disease-stricken Third World, in my opinion, you'd probably better work hard at understanding the emergence of this American region.
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48 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2003
Format: Paperback
"Tobacco Road" is about a family of Georgia sharecroppers who are so appallingly stupid, ignorant, and cruel, they can barely be regarded as human beings. Wretchedly poor, uneducated, living in a dilapidated house on a defunct cotton farm, unable to afford seed to grow crops, literally starving, the Lesters are both the cause and the product of their predicament. Erskine Caldwell does not attempt to make them heroes, villains, or clowns; he simply portrays them naturally, without ideological filters over the camera lens, and leaves the crusading against agrarian capitalist exploitation to John Steinbeck.
Jeeter Lester, the patriarch of this dirtwater dynasty, and his wife Ada have seventeen children, but the accuracy of that number is in question since he can't even remember all of their names. We get to meet only two of them: Ellie May, his harelipped daughter who, unmarried at age eighteen, is considered an old maid by local standards; and his teenage son Dude who has a promising future as a living scarecrow. There is also a creepy old woman who wanders around and hides behind trees, and this, we are told, is Jeeter's mother, although it is scary to think how she could be anybody's mother, even Jeeter's.
But the most frightening character is Sister Bessie, a noseless woman preacher with no particular denominational affiliation who just likes to thank God for everything. She (sort of) marries Dude and uses the money she inherited from her dead husband to buy a new Ford so they can drive around the county to preach. The car is, in fact, more deserving of sympathy than any character in the novel because of the brutal treatment it receives at the hands of the Lesters in just the first week of ownership -- a headlight is lost, a fender is crumpled, the front axle is bent, the paint is scratched, the engine is ruined for lack of oil, the upholstery is torn, and the spare tire is hocked. Dude's careless driving also causes two fatal accidents, but there is some consolation in the fact that one of the fatalities is Jeeter's mother.
Despite his Neanderthal mentality, Jeeter does have a conscience about certain things. It is out of an almost spiritual devotion to farming and not laziness that he refuses to earn a living by working in a cotton mill. He has always wanted but could never afford to get Ellie May's harelip fixed so she can attract a man. After stealing a sack of turnips from his son-in-law and endeavoring to keep them all for himself, he feels a brief pang of remorse. And both he and Ada are distinctly modern in their irrational fears about death; not about the dying itself, but about the body's postmortem condition -- Ada hopes to have a nice dress for the coffin, and Jeeter just wants to be assured that he won't be laid to rest anywhere rats could chew off his face like one did his father's.
However, for the most part there is no love nor humanity among the Lesters; they are animalistically selfish and insensitive to the extent that they resemble a pack of wolves more than a human family. In that sense, I enjoyed this novel because it's like a simpler cousin to Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" in subject and setting. I'm just thankful the edition I read wasn't illustrated.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
In Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell tells the humorous yet incredibly detestable tale of an extremely poor southern family during the Great Depression. Their amazingly ignorant, destructive, and immoral behavior is almost painful to read about at times but is somehow strangely amusing.
The story begins with Jeeter Lester stealing a sack of turnips from his son-in-law who has walked all day to buy them. After hearing the description of the family's living conditions, however, the reader almost feels he is justified in taking them to feed his starving children, wife, and mother. Any sympathy quickly vanishes when Jeeter runs off into the woods to stuff himself with turnips before he returns to give the little that is left to his family. It should come as no surprise that nearly all of his children ran away from home as soon as they could and never return home to visit. One of his two children that is still at home when the book begins is Dude, Jeeter's sixteen-year-old son. Soon Dude gets married to a traveling preacher woman named Bessie who was born without a nose. Bessie lures Dude into the marriage with the promise of a new car for Dude despite the fact that they are twenty-five years apart in age. After running over and killing a black man, an event which does not bother any of the Lesters, and other such calamities, the car is quickly rendered into a piece of junk by the destructive hands of Dude and Jeeter. When Bessie complains about their rough treatment of the car, Jeeter kicks her off his land and starts hitting her with sticks. In her rush to get away, Bessie runs over Jeeter's mother, but she does not even stop to see if she is alright. The amazing thing is that Jeeter does not go check on her either, and his mother suffers a slow, agonizing death as she attempts to crawl to the house.
The characters in the book are not developed much beyond the fact that they are incredibly ignorant and immoral, but the reader gets the impression that that is because there is really not much more to the Lester family than those qualities. Any potential redeeming qualities are quickly obscured by a flood of more and more horrendous characteristics. An example of this is Jeeter's love of the land, which could be seen as a positive attribute. Quickly, however, the reader realizes that this love of the land is the root of the Lesters' poverty, because Jeeter cannot afford seeds to plant but will not leave the land to work in the city. This also serves to display the theme of the book which is man's often irrational refusal to accept changes in life.
The style of the book, although plain, contains very well written dialog and the setting is excellently portrayed as well. If there is one problem in the book, it is the extremity to which the depravity of the characters is taken. This can make it nearly impossible to relate to or sympathize with the characters in any way. Although this can detract slightly from the story, overall the book was very entertaining.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2001
Format: Paperback
Very little content and extremely repetitive dialogue which effectively does portray the pathetic life of the main characters but left me as a reader thinking I was reading a circular loop. Suggestive rather than outright sexual, but considering the time period this was quite controversial. What makes it really sharp is the sheer hatred and indifference the characters show toward each other. Described as humorous by some, I would disagree. It roused barely a chuckle out of me once or twice. That durn book is powerful sinful. The good Lord didn't intend for men to be writin' books like that noway.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2001
Format: Paperback
Written in a plainative style reminisicent of Hemingway, Caldwell does a fasinating job creating his characters who are all concerned only with themselves and seem to disregard the rest of their family because they only get in the way of their own individual happiness. The main focus of the story is on Jeeter Lester who is the father of the family living on an old piece of land that use to be part of his grandfathers successful tobacco plantation. The Lester family is currently poor and the Lesters must beg or steal to get a hold of any food. Their complete disregard for others can be shown through numerous events throughout the novel, such as Jeeter carelessly stealing a croker sack full of turnips from his son-in-law and running off and eating nearly the entire sack before returning to give the remains to his starving family. When reading this book it seemed to have the same feel as The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, but notably is more explicit which at times had me gasping. One instance of this is when Jeeter's mother is run over by a car and the family seems to pay no attention whatsoever to her laying dying in their front yard. Definately recommended read as it portrays an insight into a poor farming family of the 1930s coping with poverty, though perhaps a little twisted at times. But the twists and turns make it all the more enjoyable a read and I look forward to reading more by Erskine Caldwell in the future.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2013
Format: Paperback
Sometime there are no words...but, in this case, I am writing this review having no clue what I will write..thus, the meaning of Sometime there are no words...Most of us have heard of the Great Depression, read books, seen movies, heard our ancestors talk of it..maybe it's just me, but, if this book is accurate (although it is a fiction) in it's portrayal of depression era times, this is beyond disbelief..it's like, where did these characters in Tobacco Road, come from?? Did this really happen?? Are there actually people who lived, thought, acted like this?? And are thee still people like this, today..if so, I don't know any of them, and I don't want to..I gave this book 5 stars, and the reason for that is because, it being classified fiction, Mr. Caldwell had an imagination above any I have ever come across..and, if he interviewed people to see how they actually lived during this time, he was a very brave man..I can so understand how this book received all of the attention and acclaim..it is truly one of a kind. If you have not read this book yet, be prepared for the unbelievable..
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2001
Format: Paperback
Written during the depression era, this southern classic uncovers the ugly side of southern culture steeped in poverty. Come along on Tobacco Road and view Jeeter Lester and his dysfunctional family. Jeeter, the patriarch of this poor excuse of humanity brings out the worst qualities that a man can possess. His ignorance, selfishness and stupidity are magnified to the highest degrees as he attempts to survive in a world that has long gone.
Erskine Caldwell has introduced us to a life of absurdity in the backwoods of the south. His characters are stereotypical charactures of poor southern whites. Some of them are grotesque in their appearance, greedy, selfish and totally shiftless. As much as you would want to sympathize with them, you can't. They are people who won't take responsibility for themselves and will put the blame on others. Jeeter and his son Dude are great examples of this mentality.
How then can this book be so good if it describes people so bad? In telling the story of Tobacco Road, we see another side of southern culture exposed. It is not pretty, genteel or noble. You see the ugly for what it is and affirm that this too is a part of life when people are reduced to extreme poverty. There is also humor in the story. The characters are not totally one dimensional but their naivite draws you to tears of laughter and maybe sorrow. Look into this world of southern culture where people cling to dreams long dead and allow themselves to remain stagnate on Tobacco Road. This is an excellent southern classic of a people long forgotten.
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