Review: Tobacco Road (We are making history)

We Are Making History


Tonight I sat in my Southern Literature class discussing and listening about Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell.  I do not know if you have ever read this book, seen the play, watched the movie, or the Broadway, but it is a book which is in some ways infuriating, successful, a failure, and, amazingly enough, brilliant.  After I read it last weekend, my general opinion was that I hated the book.  But the great thing about a discussion, is that it opens up our minds and lets us think. And think I did.

Tobacco Road is about a family during the Great Depression, who overall seem to be overwhelmingly stupid at times, and trapped in a dead-end circle.  This book makes some readers unable to read more than a couple of chapters at a time, others to keep reading just for the sheer hope that one of the characters will have an epiphany (or find some brains), or just because the book sings truth in such an unforgivable way. 

The characters in this book are real, and they are the often depressing truth about many of us.  It is a novel that can be hard to swallow.  Certainly anyone who has worked their way up from a poor background will not want to remember it. Others cannot bear such obvious stupidity.  And still others will hate that they cannot find sympathy for this group of people. It covers only a span of two-ish days, but these days are very important for this family.  Honestly, before I would have asked how it could have ever become such a renowned novel.  Now I see why, even though I am left with so many questions. According to a student in my class, Caldwell says that this book is open to the interpretation that the reader gains from it. Trust me, that varies quite a bit.

After we discussed the book, my professor showed us 45 minutes of a documentary on photographer, Shelby Lee Adams. Adams focuses on the folks of the Appalachians. The documentary was insightful.  Honestly, these people are beautiful, and real. They have lived hard lives, working as they can, doing what they can, and living as they know how.  They do not live in wonderful houses, have fifty-seven game consoles, and spend all day hooked to the internet.  They live.  They see life.  They spend time with their large families.  They are more real than any of us shall ever be.  And that beautiful woman smoking that pipe?  She has seen more than we could ever guess, and lived through simple, complicated moments.  These people are our history.  They are this nation. They represent so much.  And yes, the represent a stereotype.  But like it or not, we are all a stereotype.  I would love to meet Shelby Lee Adams.  I think what he is doing is wonderous for so many reasons.  But the main reason I think so?

Adams is recording history. A history that otherwise would be forgotten, let to fall under the radar, and these beautiful people would probably never have been known by us.  Actually, I know they would not have.  The sister of the little girl in this photo was appalled.  She said that she worked her way up from poverty and that she is so glad no one took pictures of her and showed the world.  But that Adams disgraced her family, showing them in a horrible way.  I think, honestly, it had nothing to do with Adams.  She was ashamed.  Ashamed of her truly humble background.  Her sister, in this picture, is beautiful.  That screen door means nothing.  Yes, I’m sure many think about the home and what it all means.  I see a young girl, in her world, and she is happy.  People look for what they want to see.  Nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes that is all there is to it.  Adams, is showing us what he sees.

His camera lens is recording a history.  And that made me think. I once heard a lecture about how historians will works in a hundred years.  For historians now, we rumble through archives, pray they have been scanned online, and try to find that sliver of information no one has thought about. We think about lives centuries past, and we try to piece together a history.  The lives of the common people (Terms then) are lost to us.  So few knew how to write. So few left anything behind but memories for their loved ones.  Today we update our statuses three or four times on facebook. People tweet thirty times a day.  We are hooked onto the internet, to our smartphones, and to the television.  The history we leave behind us may be overwhelming for the future.  So many primary documents.  It’ll be almost too much.  And yet, there are still so many families who will fly under that radar.  The families here will do that.  Still, their past has been recorded by another.  And that beautiful past will live on.  I am thankful for that.

What I take away from this, is that our of all actions are a part of history.  Whether or not it will be something monumental, who will know? Lincoln had no idea he would be president (or a vampire slayer) when he was a young child.  Yet that future awaited him.  The young cashier at your grocery store? Who knows what college awaits her?  The future will look back and have a wealth of information for, not only the rich, royal or famous, but also the common people.  For as long as they can access it, numerous data exists for the future.  And we’ve already survived the end of the world about six times.  Perhaps our data shall as well.

So future, I salute you.  Have fun trying to figure us out. We all know we never could.


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