The Tobacco Wives, by Adele Myers, is the story of how one industry can impact the lives of an entire city.
It’s 1946, and following the death of her father, young Maddie Sykes and her mother are struggling to make ends meet. One day, Maddie’s mother packs the teen into her car with all of her things and takes her to Bright Leaf, North Carolina, where she leaves her with her Aunt Etta without any warning. Maddie had spent many summers with her aunt, but this time it was different. Her mother was leaving her for good, off to find a husband to take care of her.
Bright Leaf is a tobacco town. Nearly everyone has a connection to cigarettes. They work long shifts at the factory. They support the tobacco people through grocery stores and schools and gas stations. In turn, the tobacco company keeps everyone employed.
Aunt Etta is a magnificent seamstress, and over the years, has taught Maddie her skills. Etta creates the beautiful clothes for the wealthy wives of the tobacco executives. She takes Maddie under her wing, and has her help her sew the gowns and other clothes for the women.
While missing her mother, Maddie becomes friends with the women, and improves on her skills. But she begins noticing that there are a lot of sick people in the town. When her aunt takes ill and is hospitalized, Maddie takes over her business entirely in preparation for the biggest event of the year. She stumbles across a letter that indicates there is a lot the tobacco people aren’t saying. Eventually, Maddie must choose between spilling the beans and risking the lives of the people with whom she has grown close.
The Tobacco Wives is the story of how an industry can practically own a town, especially back in the days before working conditions were improved. Just as important, it tells readers how a young woman finds her voice.
The novel was a debut for the author, and has some typical debutitis. Still, I enjoyed the book.