Tobacco Road takes place in sharecropper country in rural Georgia in the bleakest times of the Great Depression, centering around the Lester family, a bunch of idiotic, amoral, and generally unlikeable bunch living hand-to-mouth. Foremost is the patriarch of the family, Jeeter Lester, who refuses to move to the city and get a job in a mill to feed his family. His wife Ada is a shrew and his ancient mother putters around the house essentially ignored, feeding off crumbs and such to survive. Most of his seventeen children are gone, married off, except for two: Dude (these names read like an episode of Hee Haw) who marries a woman preacher with a disfigured nose named Sister Bessie because she buys a new automobile, and Ellie May, who is a fair enough girl except for a hideous hairlip that makes her unmarriageable. Ellie May does however receive some interest from local Lov Bensey, who just isn't getting enough out of his marriage to Jeeter's twelve-year old daughter Pearl.
These are probably some of the most reprehensible people I have ever read about. The book opens as Lov comes to seek Jeeter's help about how to get Pearl to sleep with him--to which Jeeter responds by stealing Lov's sack of turnips and running into the woods to devour them alone. Jeeter spends the entire novel wondering where his next dollar is going to come from, and the family is always just at the edge of starvation. At the end, Dude and Bessie run over and kill Mother Lester in their automobile without so much as turning back, and then Jeeter accidentally sets his house on fire killing everyone inside including himself. These are truly disgusting people.
But why? What's the point? I'm not one to point fingers at unfair representations in literature, I think that too often that's myopic and short-sighted, but Tobacco Road plays only as a cruel parody. Caldwell gives a whopping zero redeeming traits to his characters; their exploits afford no insight to anything but their own idiocy and moral shortcoming. There is no urgency to be felt in the Lester family's closeness to starvation. In fact, if anything, I rooted for these characters to die and in horrible fashion. If this book is a drama, it lacks honesty; if it is a satire, it lacks wit. Worst of all, it is boring. Not recommended.