Judith Pippinger Blackford is a prototype of the working-class heroine later used by Agnes Smedley in Daughter of Earth (1929) and Harriette Arnow in The Dollmaker (1954). She is a fully realized character caught in constricting circumstances, portrayed, for the most part, neither sentimentally nor heroically. She can be likened, to a great extent, to the protagonist in Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945). She is interesting not only in her love of the outdoors and her affinity for “man’s work,” but also in her forthright sexuality. She is sexually intimate with Jerry before they are married. “Accident was kind to them and did not thrust upon them with untimely speed the physical results of the sweet intimacy that they enjoyed.” In like manner, when she finds herself strongly attracted to a traveling revivalist, she risks scandal and ostracism and has an affair with him. Unlike Emma Bovary, she realizes that he is not a permanent solution to her dreary existence, awakens from “the dream,” and ends it.
Without the author laying the blame on her husband, Judith is depicted as becoming cynical with her role as sharecropper’s wife and a mother; her affections harden toward her family. So disenchanted does she become with her lot in life that she wonders if her daughter’s life is worth saving. “She would live only to endure, to be patient, to work, to suffer; and at last, when she had gone through all these things, to die without ever having lived and without knowing that she had never lived.” When her daughter survives the flu, she attempts to come to terms with her life, to accept it without chafing, but when her spiritual double, Jabez Moorhouse, dies, she realizes that this “peaceful resignation” is also a dream dissipated at the question: “Whatcha got for supper, Judy?” At the novel’s end, she is Sisyphus rolling the rock to the top of the mountain, knowing it will roll back down, over and over again. Unlike Albert Camus’s Sisyphus, however, she is not ennobled by this consciousness of her condition; she cannot embrace the rock.
Her husband, Jerry Blackford, is portrayed sympathetically. A healthy, robust, well-meaning young man, he strives to make enough money from the unpredictable tobacco crop to buy his own land, the only way out of the poverty cycle of the tenant farmer. Like the other sharecroppers, he is unable to get ahead. After one particularly backbreaking season, during which he is detained two weeks by flu from getting the tobacco to...
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