Saturday, March 9, 2013
Turnips and Tragedy
Tobacco Road, by Erskine Caldwell, was published in 1932 and focuses on the lives of a white sharecropper family, the Lesters, who live in poverty in rural Georgia. The novel takes place over the course of just a few days, starting with Jeeter Lester's son-in-law passing by the Lester house along Tobacco Road with a bag of turnips. Fueled by desperation and hunger, Jeeter tries to take Lov's turnips, and subsequently repents for this as he believes it to be a sinful act. Jeeter and Ada Lester had seventeen children, most of whom left home to seek a more prosperous life as a result of industrialization, and more specifically, cotton mills. Jeeter Lester steadfastly refuses to leave his land and go work in the cotton mills, given that the land had been in his family for two generations. As Lov states, "The ground sort of looks out for 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." Despite his desire and need to farm his land, Jeeter has few options as storekeepers won't extend credit to him for seed and fertilizer, and he was also the victim of predatory lending. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Caldwell's famous novel unflinchingly portrays the degradation, oppression, and racism prevalent in those times. It is an unsettling work, brought to life by the day to day struggle of the Lester family.