I read this book on the California Zephyr in May 2019 about poor cotton sharecroppers. I thought it an appropriate read for a train ride from Chicago to San Francisco.
This controversial novel was written in 1932 and describes the Great Depression years in Georgia near Atlanta. The poverty of the Lester family, their starvation, the hopelessness of everything and everyone is sobering . Written and set in a time when agricultural practices were changing and cotton picking was becoming mechanised, the question this novel asks is how culpable are these people of the situation they find themselves in? Jeeter Lester could make more money in the city working in one of the cotton factories, but stubbornly refuses to leave his familial homestead despite their situation becoming more and more dire. Bessie and Dude buy a car they can’t afford and travel to the city where they get into deep trouble when the car overheats. They drive it without oil and ruin the engine – (indicative of the state of the nation?) They are taken advantage of by unscrupulous businessmen who play upon their lack of education and street awareness. Bessie starts working as a prostitute in a hotel. It’s a downward spiral leading to a tragic end.
The characters in this novel are unattractive and their interactions with outsiders and amongst themselves illustrate a flouting of the morality of the time – of any time. The reader knows they will never climb out of their poverty trap because they don’t know how to and even if they did they wouldn’t have the economic or educational resources they need to call upon. Also, they will fail simply because they expect to fail, so why bother they ask themselves?
They are let down by their landlord who fails to provide the seed he promised. There is land, but it cannot be farmed because the land has not beeen prepared and there is no seed anyway. No seed means no crop means more starvation.
The economic state of the nation, the lack of education, the psyche of these rural farmers all combine to thwart them at every turn. Essentially I see this novel as a critique of the nation – a country running on empty – and these poor sharecroppers within it being taken on a journey that is anything, but a joyride. It’s a sobering, thought provoking read and I highly recommend it.