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Old 31st Oct 2005, 16:33   #1
HP
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Default Erskine Caldwell

Am only halfway through Caldwell's Tobacco Road, but already I feel a five star, red highlighter gush coming upon me - second thoughts: make that a seven star with red sequins and a feather boa. More later ..........
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Old 30th Nov 2005, 16:29   #2
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Default Re: Erskine Caldwell

Prompted by Paul, (sorry sir, for taking so long - and thank you! I really needed that gentle jab in the ribs to get on with it!) I've finally found a moment or two to wallop up a fuller review. So here goes.

Fabulous originality; unforgettable characters, a tale of destitution and depravity set in a comedy that brings new pitch-black depths to the term ‘noir’ and what have you got? Erskine Caldwell’s show-stopping Tobacco Road, that’s what! At a slim 184 pages, this bristling little gem packs a punch that wakens the senses and makes you realise just how terribly dull and forgettable are so many other writers’ stable of characters. In short, it's a vicious-humoured little romp that entertains from first to last and it’s not for the faint-hearted. Nor is it for those of a nervous disposition. And, I should add, it’s most certainly not for those with delicate sensibilities!

So, what’s it about, then? To answer that, let me quote the blurb on the back:
Quote:
Set in the depleted farmlands surrounding Augusta, Georgia, Tobacco Road was first published in 1932. It is the story of the Lesters, a family of white sharecroppers so destitute that most of their creditors have given up on them. Debased by poverty to an elemental state of ignorance and selfishness, the Lesters are pre-occupied by their hunger, sexual longings , and fear that they will someday descend to a lower rung on the social ladder than the black families who live near them.
– which pretty much sums it up.


And I dare to call this a comedy? Absolutely: it’s a comedy borne of adversity and desperation and a paucity of hope. And despite the appalling behaviour of so many of the characters - their outrageous insensitivity to each other’s suffering, their monumentally callous disregard for life itself - you still find yourself laughing - in shock as much as anything else - at the savage and exquisitely timed humour that peppers almost each and every page.

Caldwell was a highly experienced writer who learned his trade the hard way and frankly it shows. The entertainment value is sustained not by the plot - which is slight - but wholly on the strength and intensity of his characters, their inimitable dialogue and speech patterns, and by the sheer colour and pulsating energy contained in his tightly-wrought narrative. And his consummate literary skill and savage humour, coupled with admirable nerve and verve (there is an element of ‘edge-walking’in Tobacco Road that in lesser hands could have simply plummetted into calamitous bad taste) delivers his cast and their woeful existences with a subtly compassionate eye to their predicament. Because, under Caldwell’s brutal but skilful pen, you understand the primary reason for these people behaving they way they do: namely the physically-draining, mentally-numbing effects of crushing poverty. A poverty so all encompassing and relentless that it is grinds them firmly into the dust of their barren lands. The sort of poverty that slowly but surely takes a man and turns him into a savage. With every avenue of help fast closing on them, and with the banks, the stores – and with even the heavens firmly lining up against them - even Jeeter’s (the pater familias of the Lester household and a die-hard optimist), ever more ardent avowals to somehow lay his hands on some cotton seed and guano and plant him a field of cotton to keep body and soul together, are nothing more than the final flickering of hope over reality. Yet if all this seems remorselessly grim, again and again, Caldwell manages to turn the dark to light – or if not light, then to somehow render the wretched outrageous and entertaining. In fact, I think ‘outrageous entertainment’ probably sums this book up best.

And the quibbles? Not one, not at the time of reading. It’s only now, after the dust has truly settled (unlike that in Tobacco Road which tirelessly swirls and settles on everyone and everything throughout), I can see that Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, a beast of a different and altogether meatier hue entirely - but one which also deals with impoverished sharecroppers caught up in the Great Depression of the thirties – is the worthier article. There again, it's perfectly clear (at least to this reader) that TGOW was written to satisfy a very different agenda.

So to summarise: well, if you’re a fan of Flannery O’Connor (which I am), a sucker for hard-hitting literary entertainment that binds its reader gasping and chuckling to every page; and if, above all, you can take a fabulously crafted slice of life at its rawest and often most cruel, without throwing a hissy fit (!) and moaning about authors who don’t give a gnat’s fart for fair play or eternal justice - than I am pretty sure Caldwell’s Tobacco Road may just be for you. It certainly was for me!

NB: for those interested to know more, check out Erskine Caldwell’s biography details here.
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Old 30th Nov 2005, 16:41   #3
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Default Re: Erskine Caldwell

Sorry to be a pain in the "ribs", as you so kindly put it. Thanks for the detailed review, HP. That time period is so fascinating to me and I'm anxious to get my hands on this one.
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Old 30th Nov 2005, 16:54   #4
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Default Re: Erskine Caldwell

You're not a pain, Paul! I have a savage love/hate thing about writing reviews - more hate than love, I'll fully admit - so I was genuinely glad you ever so gently and very diplomatically (!) nudged me to do so. I'm just about to order Caldwell's God's Little Acres and Call It Experience: The Years of Learning How to Write (1951)from Amazon on the strength of how much I loved Tobacco Road.

And yes, like you, I'm absolutely fascinated by that era - and the style of writing it seemed to produce. It's the very bold, almost gothic nature of writers like Caldwell and Steinbeck, Flannery and McCullers that knocks some of the pussy-footing tip-toey efforts of many modern writers into the shade. These folk weren't afraid to go for it! Subtlety is a wonderful tool used in the right hands, but too often I'm left with the feeling it's all rather too damn subtle to be entertaining!

Love to know what you made of Grapes of Wrath - I'm so blown away with it, I've decided to get the hardback since it's going to get a lot of re-reading, I'm sure. Btw, if you can recommend any other books written about this era and the plight of the sharecroppers, I'd love to hear them, pretty please.
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Old 30th Nov 2005, 18:54   #5
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Default Re: Erskine Caldwell

I can definitely commiserate with you on the review thing. I always start with the best of intentions and kind of dwindle into random mutterings by the end. It doesn't help that so many stellar reviews are posted on this site - very intimidating!

Be sure to let me know what you think of the other Caldwell as you get to it. I've added TR to my Christmas list so we'll see if Santa takes pity on me.

It's been so long since I've read Grapes Of Wrath that I'm reticent to comment for now but as soon as my wife is done reading it (it kept her up quite late last night) I'm planning on diving in, at which point I will report back.

In regards to other recommendations, I've been racking my brain for a hidden gem but couldn't come up with one. None of these cover all of your criteria and you've probably read most of them but here goes:

Faulkner - As I Lay Dying
Your descriptions of the Lesters put me in mind of this story and its similarly comical/tragic clan.
- Barn Burning
This is a short story that involves the Snopes family, a group that appears throughout many of his novels.

Steinbeck - East Of Eden
I can't recommend this one highly enough. It begins at the turn of the century and covers a wide span of time and is truly an epic in every sense of the word. Doesn't specifically focus on the Depression or sharecropping but is absolutely magical.
- In Dubious Battle
This one is on my TBR list but come very highly recommended. From the back of the book "In the California apple country, nine hundred migratory workers rise up "in dubious battle" against the landowners. The group takes on a life of its own—stronger than its individual members and more frightening. Led by the doomed Jim Nolan, the strike is founded on his tragic idealism—on the "courage never to submit or yield."

I realize that these are all well-known classics and are probably not the little-know surprises you were hoping for but they were the only ones I could come up with. If I think of anything else (or discover one along the way) I know who to report to first.
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Old 30th Nov 2005, 20:44   #6
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Default Re: Erskine Caldwell

Thanks Paul. I'm currently reading Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and enjoying it more and more as I get used to his very distinctive style and determined obtuseness - sometimes, you have to adopt a sort of lateral-thinking approach to understand what's going on - especially with the strange ramblings of Vardaman, the son. But it's a class act and no mistake.

As to the other Steinbeck recommendations, yes, these are calling loudly. I think it was Digger who said she had a sort of Steinbeck love-fest some time back and I can understand why. I've just picked up Cannery Row and have plonked East of Eden on the family Christmas wish-list - so am pretty confident I'll get my greedy little mitts on that one too, pretty soon!

If you have any difficulties getting hold of Tobacco Road (I got it fairly easily from Amazon as I recall), just shout. I've promised to loan it to my sister-in-law next, but when she's through with it, then you're more than welcome.
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Old 30th Nov 2005, 21:35   #7
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Default Re: Erskine Caldwell

Ah, yes. Currently reading.

I was checking online and it does look like I'll be able to track down a copy of Tobacco Road fairly easily but thanks for the kind offer.
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Old 12th Jan 2006, 22:06   #8
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Default Re: Erskine Caldwell

Well, I finished Tobacco Road yesterday and have been letting it soak in a little, trying to figure out exactly what I want to say about it. This book is so rich and full that I know I'll need much longer than a few days to fully appreciate it.

As HoneyPotts mentioned, the driving force is the wonderful, despicable, motley cast of characters who live along the tobacco road. As I read, I found my opinion of them swung dramatically between disgust and pity, absolute horror and genuine affection. Just as one of Jeeter's sincerest soliloquys would begin to convince me that he really was just a victim of his impossibly harsh circumstances, in the next scene he would display such blatant laziness and disregard for his own well-being, and that of his family, that I found myself searching for a single scrap of sympathy.

This is a novel of extremes – Jeeter's stubborn optimism in the face of the mind-numbing poverty in which the Lesters exist, surrounded by barren sand, scrub brush and little else; the total disregard for human life - both that of strangers and even those within the family itself. The characters are base and ignorant and have been reduced to little more than animals by their dire circumstances and yet Caldwell's skill is such that he is able to fill every page with dark and surprising humor. Again, as HP mentioned, he is somehow able to skim along the edge of bad taste, focusing a harsh and unflinching spotlight on each fault and prejudice and yet doing it in a way that is neither judgmental or mean-spirited. Despite everything that is unlikeable about these people you still find yourself rooting for them.

This book is very difficult to describe and I feel I've done a poor job of it but let me just say that it was one of the funniest, saddest books that I've read. Mr. Caldwell has packed enough into these few pages to keep me thinking and chuckling for quite some time. 1/2
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Old 24th Jul 2007, 21:27   #9
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Default Re: Erskine Caldwell

Written in 1932 and set during the Great Depression of that time, Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road blesses us with a look into the hearts and minds of white sharecroppers in Georgia. And at a time when there's little to be happy about due to widespread poverty and starvation the author manages, in this slice of life, an accomplished marriage of dark humour with the bleakness expected from humanity worn down.

The Lesters, headed by patriarch, Jeeter, are one of the families living out on the farmlands around the town of Fuller. What once was rich tobacco land has, over the generations, been sold off to makes ends meet to the point that the Lesters are living at the discretion of an absentee landlord who has sold up and moved to Augusta. All Jeeter wants is to hire a mule, get himself some seed and some guano so that he can grow a bit of cotton and provide for himself and his family. But, with all the sharecroppers in the same predicament, it's no surprise that stores in Fuller won't give him any credit. Thus the destitute are further struck down. Even God, it seems, has abandoned them.

The novel follows Jeeter as he hopes and procrastinates over making enough money to live on, stubbornly refusing to leave the land he was born on for the mills where he would no doubt be guaranteed work. When he does try, nobody wants to know. When a plan seems a good one, the optimism surrounding it comes crashing down. And when he thinks he knows the ways of the world, his rural naivete allows advantages to be taken of him. Things proceed, pretty much the same from day to day as you'd expected when there's nothing much to do, until, like all those passing through Tobacco Road, the novel reaches its tragic end.

The greatest thing about Tobacco Road is its cast of memorable characters. Caldwell's skill in regularly making Jeeter a man we feel is hard done by and then have us abandoning all sympathies for him ensures that we never really know what to make of him, although, come the conclusion, we can look back over his actions and see him for who he is. Around him, the others play out parts both harrowing and darkly comic: his wife, Ada; his last remaining kids, Dude and hare-lipped Ellie May; his mother who "had lived so long in the house...she had been considered nothing more than a door-jamb or a length of wearther-boarding"; Lov Bensey from two miles over, married to the Lesters' twelve year old daughter, Pearl; and Sister Bessie, a widowed preacher-woman who follows directions from God on her actions.

Caldwell's narration, always to the point, feels evocative of the geography - at least, idealistically - and complements the wonderfully captured nuances of the local dialect, with the bleak realities of everyday life shot through with humour that, when thought about, becomes all too plausible and not funny after all:

Quote:
The Lesters stood around in the yard and on the front porch waiting to see what Lov was going to do next. There had been very little in the house again that day to eat; some salty soup Ada had made by boiling several fatback rinds in a pan of water, and corn bread, was all there was when they had sat down to eat. There had not been enough to go around even then, and the old grandmother had been shoved out of the kitchen when she tried to come inside.
At under two hundred pages, Tobacco Road is a quick enough read, thin on plot, shifting its focus to its characters and their interactions, but remaining satisfying as events unfold. Even though the characters aren't truly likeable, you still want to know what they are going to do next and that sort of readability ensures a skilled hand from the author, something Caldwell surely has. It isn't going to be challenging Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath for Best Depression Novel Ever, but Tobacco Road is a road worth walking, certainly worth the price of a mule, some seed, and guano at least.
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Old 24th Jul 2007, 22:08   #10
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Great review, Stewart. Glad you enjoyed it, as well. I know that HP read some other works by Caldwell - I'd definitely be curious to pick up another one somewhere down the road.
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