Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

First read: 6/2007
Reviewed on: 6/12/2007
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

Picture the cast of As I Lay Dying. Now make them more ignorant, more easily taken advantage of, and much, much poorer. You are now visiting the Lester family of Tobacco Road.

These are not "poor but noble" people. These are people who can't afford nobility. And the ignorance is something you can taste. Every once in a while something happens that gives them a possibility of making things a little better - something so they stop starving to death, and you want to scream into the book, and either they screw it up, or someone with an education cheats them.

You would think that I could adequately summarize a quick-reading 150 page book; but I can't even begin to describe what it is like. I'm starting to think that I've found an indicator of "Best Novels of All Time" - that property that you can't sit down and convey the experience of reading them to someone else, and when you try, you feel like you are a high-school student writing a book report.

Caldwell puts you in this world of poverty and heat. A less perfect writer would have made you laugh with the events of this story. (That's one of the reasons I don't want to say a lot - if you heard me tell the events, you would think I was describing a funny book. Caldwell is able to write this so it wasn't a comedic novel.) Another less perfect writer would have made the characters seem heroic. Caldwell does neither. You are just there, and you don't have a convenient genre-paradigm sheilding you from the story.

I started this book at an airport, knowing nothing about it, and finished it 15 minutes after checking into my hotel. I want you to be able to experience it that way, too. Don't read the back cover.

Okay - one thought. Throughout the book, I kept thinking how much Libertarians would like this book. It is their version of Utopia. The unfettered free market working perfectly. The educated people have the capital they've earned, and they use their smarts to take what they can from the shiftless stupid poor people. Unlike some socialist books on the top 100, these poor people have chances to improve their lives. And since they don't take them, it all must be their fault, right?

And then I thought of Jesus. What would Jesus think about these people? How would Jesus want us to help them? Better schools? Someone from the government coming down and advising them on better farming techniques? (Every year, they burn away the one thing they can grow that is worth money, because nobody ever told them differently) I was interested in a take on this book from the standpoint of Christian charity and compassion. I don't know what Jesus would say, but Orrin is a Christian Conservative, so his view is certainly closer to Jesus' than my Secular Atheist Jew view is. (Click here for his review.)

Oh, one more thought - This book kept reminding me of this Achewood strip:

(For more Achewood go to Copyright Chris Onstad.)

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