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“The Tobacco Wives” By: Adele Myers


“The Tobacco Wives”

Author: Adele Myers

Publisher: William Morrow

New York


Pages: 344

Price: $27.99 (Hardcover)

Small-Town Historical Novel Takes On Big Issues

The executives of Big Tobacco are no longer in the news. It was entertaining for a while to watch them swear under oath that they did not know nicotine was addictive or that smoking contributed to various heart and lung diseases, and so on.

As was the case with President Nixon and the Watergate hearings, the big question was: “What did they know and when did they know it?”

In this debut novel by Adele Myers, a North Carolina native with a degree in journalism from Chapel Hill, we are taken back in time to 1946, in fictional Bright Leaf, North Carolina, actually Winston-Salem.

World War II has just ended. The first servicemen are returning.

During the war, their jobs, especially in the tobacco factories, were taken by women who did very well at them indeed.

Now, with the men returning, management, who never wanted females around anyway, is finding excuses to let the women go, including making working conditions more and more unpleasant.

Some women are happy to return to “homemaking.” Many are not, and are resisting. These brief “Norma Rae” scenes comprise one of several themes in “Tobacco Wives.”

Another theme is inequity. There is ample evidence that wartime hardships were not shared equally. Although rationing is still on, the rich have plenty of meat, butter, eggs, sugar, any dainties they need.

Our protagonist, teenager Maddie Sykes, finds herself in Bright Leaf, unexpectantly taking over her Aunt Etta’s dressmaking business.

There is a rush. The huge end-of-summer Benefit “Gala” is in a few weeks. Original and stunning new dresses have to be handmade for the very wealthy First Tier Tobacco Wives.

The wives of middle management, “Second Tier,” have store-bought dresses to be altered, fitted, enhanced so they look to the untrained eye, perhaps, bespoke.

We learn a great deal about colors, fabrics and draping, fitted bodices and pleated skirts, hemlines, necklines, waistlines, plunging backs and slitted sides. We are told of a “scalloped peplum” and a “matching scalloped mini -cape.”

We are also told that “women tended to share more when they stood on a seamstress’ platform.” We learn about the women—some are friendly, sensible ladies; some are snobs and harridans.

There is some commentary on the social strata, just what you might expect, and there is even a quick look at attitudes towards male homosexuality and lesbianism in this little, straitlaced town.

Everybody has some kind of secret in a culture where conformity is absolute.

This is not just a competent novel exposing small-town peccadilloes. Myers explores larger issues as Maddie learns a lot more than petty gossip.

Like everyone, she is inundated with tobacco advertising. Tobacco, Americans are being told, is good for your health. In ads, doctors recommend it to reduce stress, help weight loss.

And the company Bright Leaf is just coming out with a new cigarette, MOMints, especially for women and most especially for pregnant women, even though, in this 1946 novel, management know that cigarettes probably contribute to lower birth weight, increase infant mortality.

Maddie learns this and the question becomes, will anyone blow the whistle, do the right thing, even if it wrecks the economy of the town and many of the people in it.

I think we know the answer to this dramatic question. This is not a novel of alternative history like Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.”

In this novel, as in real life, the truths about the dangers of tobacco will not emerge until 45 years later.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.