(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Much of Weeds is filtered through the experience and perception of Judith Pippinger, an unusually alive and exuberant offspring of impoverished, backwoods Kentucky, the product of inbreeding, malnutrition, geographical isolation, and poverty, a dark red rose blooming “against the drabness of the dooryard, now bare with summer draught. . . . Gorgeously it flaunted on its distorted stem.” The novel follows her from young, eccentric girlhood, when she is a dark-haired, unruly sprite among pale, long-faced, listless children, to young adulthood, to middle age and old age.

As a young girl, she follows her father around, helping with the outdoor chores—the milking, the cleaning of the pigsty, and the feeding of the chickens—rather than be trapped indoors helping her mother and sisters cook, clean, sew, mend, and tend to the needs of the male children. At a young age, she finds solace in the beauty of nature, the colors of the sky, the shapes of the hills. The book is structured chronologically, tracing Judith’s coming of age, while it also rigorously follows the cycle of seasons, just as the seasons dictate the fortunes of the sharecroppers.

When Judith is twelve years old, her mother dies of a cold. Attended by her older sisters in their starched and patched aprons, the piercing winds of February blowing through the chinks in the two-room shack, Annie Pippinger leaves her husband and five children, the cupboards bare except for cornmeal and a bit of sowbelly, the apples and potatoes gone with her. “The mouse-like little woman was claiming more attention now than she had ever done in all the forty-odd years of her drab existence.” Dismally, the family carries on, but as spring follows winter, the family manages, seasons pass, and Lizzie May, Luella, and Judith come of courting age. First Lizzie May, who is pretty in a bleak, blonde, pinched way, is selected. Then it is Judith’s turn. A young man named Jerry Blackford courts her by meeting her while she gathers the calves at nightfall, stealing her away from...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Bradbury, John M. Renaissance in the South: A Critical History of the Literature, 1920-1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963. Bradbury presents a survey of the times and the context in which Kelley produced her novel.

Cook, Sylvia J. From Tobacco Road to Route 66: The Southern Poor White in Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976. Cook explores the theme of white Southern poverty in novels including Weeds.

Goodman, Charlotte. “Edith Summers Kelley.” In The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States, edited by Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Goodman furnishes a biographical sketch of Kelley, a discussion of Weeds as a female Bildungsroman, and a brief bibliography for further study.

Goodman, Charlotte. “Widening Perspectives, Narrowing Possibilities: The Trapped Woman in Edith Summers Kelley’s Weeds.” In Regionalism and the Female Imagination, edited by Emily Toth. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1985. An analysis of Judith, the novel’s central character who must face the limitations imposed by poverty and gender.

Irvin, Helen. Women in Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1979. Includes an analysis of Weeds.