Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
Like its predecessor Liar’s Bench, GodPretty in the Tobacco Field is a powerful coming-of-age story complicated by lingering racial prejudice. The town of Nameless, Kentucky is a place where everyone suffers under the heel of grinding poverty, poor education, and images of a ruthless, punishing God from whom family elders take the cue to carry out ruthless, punishing child-rearing. It seems that when things are tough, teaching children to tough it out is considered a responsibility.
It also teaches them, of course, to be abusers in turn. Or at least quick to talk with their fists.
It’s a place where self-destructive behavior, like drunkenness, is prevalent. Where abuse of women and girls is manliness.
RubyLyn Bishop, approaching her sixteenth birthday during the blazing hot summer of 1969, keeps house and works in the tobacco fields for her Uncle Gunnar, who rescued her from an orphanage when she was five. Her parents had met tragic deaths, but living with Gunnar is something of a tragedy in itself. Out of notion of molding righteousness, he forces RubyLyn to hold a flesh-stinging and tissue swelling potion of bitters in her mouth as punishment for her lapses in behavior – whether talking back or not working hard enough.
And yet she is convinced that on some level Gunnar really cares for her, even though he never offers a compliment.
RubyLyn is enamored of her neighbor Rainey Ford, a handsome, caring, and upright African-American young man whom she would like to marry. Their clandestine interracial romance is not fully hidden, and that’s a problem; small town Kentucky has not evolved into a San Francisco zone of tolerance even by the close of the 1960s.
RubyLyn dreams of escape. Her curiosity needs wider venues. She has artistic abilities that need nourishing, a talent that could bring her an income. She needs to find or make opportunities, and getting to Louisville to display her tobacco plants might win her the prize money with which to stake hers and Rainey’s future.
Though he loves RubyLyn, Rainey – who is realized by the author with great delicacy – sees a future for himself in the army. It’s his way out of the impoverished, cruel town.
Seeing Louisville is a life-changing event for RubyLyn, though she does not win the prize because she missed the required arrival time. The people she sees are animated, friendly, and enjoying life, not stooped over and broken in spirit. She even makes a contact with someone who will help sell her artwork.
Back home, things go from bad to worse, the tobacco fields are burned down – intentionally is seems. Nasty, jealous neighbors need to bring Gunnar Royal down. They need to put his black hired hand, Rainey, in his place. They are the people whose misery needs and creates company.
Ms. Richardson’s portrait of the neighboring families’ hopeless lives (one family is ready to sell a child to get out of debt) stands out as one of the book’s major achievements. That achievement includes pitch-perfect representation of speech patterns and finely detailed views of the homes, the clothing, the food on the table, the family heirlooms, the body language, the facial expressions. Believe me, Kim Michele Richardson takes you there.
Moreover, though she draws a handful of characters you’d like to forget, she also offers us a few who are at once positive and unforgettable. One of these is the itinerant trader Rose Law, an unusually cheerful native of Nameless who travels and prospers in the wider world. It is Rose who takes RubyLyn to Louisville and provides proper clothing for her. It is Rose who allows herself to be mistaken for RubyLyn’s mother, easing RubyLyn’s way around the fair grounds. It is Rose who stands as an unbowed, self-reliant woman to whom RubyLyn can relate.
RubyLyn herself is a major achievement, her yearning for a positive future and her artistic talent explored through the fascinating “fortune tellers” she designs and draws on paper made from tobacco pulp.
This beautifully textured novel raises many challenges for its main characters to overcome and, as it comes to a close, many surprises. Saying any more would ruin it for you.
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