Tobacco Road, Caldwell’s fourth novel (counting The Bogus Ones, discovered in 1978), remains the book for which he is best remembered. Narrated in an episodic fashion, it quickly reveals more of theme and meaning than would a more organically developed effort. In Tobacco Road, Jeeter Lester and his wife, Ada, live in a decaying cabin with his silent mother and two of their fifteen children, the hare-lipped Ellie May and her younger brother Dude. Like the tobacco road on which they live, once a means of delivering hogsheads of tobacco to the Savannah River, and like the fields around them, they are obsolete and worn out.
When Lov Bensey arrives to seek Jeeter’s help in getting his child-wife, one of Jeter’s daughters, to speak to him and sleep with him, Jeeter regards the visit as an opportunity to steal turnips he suspects are in the sack Lov carries. Times in Georgia are so hard that “Captain” John has moved to Augusta, cutting off the credit that his tenant farmers like Jeeter need to eat and to acquire seed cotton and fertilizer for the tired soil. In no more than three brief chapters of Tobacco Road, Caldwell reveals the silent, loveless existence of his exploited country people and exposes the obsolete sharecropping system that controls their empty lives.
Lov is soon robbed of his turnips and seduced by Ellie May in a scene that is mostly suggested in the novel but was graphic enough to have...
(The entire section is 520 words.)