Opulence and Fragility in “The Tobacco Wives”

You wouldn’t expect a voice of the women’s movement to be draped in a seersucker shirtwaist dress now would you, sugar? Here, have some Cheerwine. The Tobacco Wives, Adele Myers’ debut novel, is a transportive work of historical fiction that drops the reader down into North Carolina in 1946 and into the world of Maddie Sykes, a fifteen-year-old dressmaker navigating the balance between relationships, family obligations, and the kind of girl she’s expected to be. Maddie is dropped off on the doorstep of her aunt’s house by her recently widowed mother, who feels that having Maddie around will get in the way of her finding another husband. Though her mother isn’t present in the novel much beyond that moment, Maddie’s inner voice throughout the novel is her mother’s constant criticism. Maddie is nosy, she is too curious, she should focus more on getting married and less on ideas of college. Her mother’s words and Maddie’s own awakening that occurs as the novel progresses create the dichotomy of old-fashioned ideas about a woman’s place and what the world might actually have to offer.

Maddie’s new world is the glittering society of Bright Leaf, a candy-floss picture of summer life in the post-war South. Maddie’s biggest problems become completing bespoke couture gowns in time for the annual Gala and wondering when her mother is going to call. As we move through the story, we realize the pastel edges of the town are yellow-stained, as we are given a glimpse into the disparity between the classes of women who have kept the tobacco-rich town thriving during the war, but also the reality that, like brightly colored butterflies and moths trapped in a Ball jar, the wives of the tobacco executives and the women in the factories are equally imprisoned in the roles the men in society allow them to play. 

The societal restraints on the women in the novel are something I would have liked to see the author dive deeper into, especially when it pertains to the women in the factories; the poorer families of working women that had been Maddie’s reality before her mother left her in Bright Leaf. Trapped and powerless is trapped and powerless, whether your husband is dead, your husband is wealthy, or your husband is at war and you’re working in the factory. There is a thread that binds those women together, regardless of class, race, or social status and I think that would have been a powerful reality to explore further throughout the course of the novel.

Like a cloisonne cigarette case, the world that encompasses this story is beautifully crafted, with an opulence that is almost Gatsby-like in the face of war rations and shortages, and an upper class that is, at once, almost understated and completely unattainable, which the South does so well. Adele Myers’ depiction of fashion, décor, and hometown celebrations is a gallery collection of delicately painted moments in the world of Bright Leaf. “They were all painted lips and curled lashes, pastel pocketbooks, and flower-trimmed hats. They called each other sweetie, honey, darling, dove, precious, and sugar.” There is a fragility to the societal diorama that the author creates, where the reader gets a clear picture of a tower of Dresden figurines, each precariously placed atop another, balanced on class structure, gossip, secrets, money, and the plastered-on smile of everyone intent on playing their part. As a reader, we get a sense of the quiet undercurrent of dissent that runs through the women of the novel, regardless of their place in society, covering everything like the powdery, brown dust of fine-milled tobacco.

The female friendships anchor the story and expose Maddie not only to a lifestyle she has never seen but also to the encouragement and support that suppresses the narrative of her mother’s criticism. The women who become a part of Maddie’s life are formidable and flawed. Their struggle is timeless: how does one, as a woman, have it all? How can you be a supportive wife, a good mother, meet expectations, and not completely lose yourself and your voice in the process? The author gives us a cast of characters who both succeed and fail at this attempt, and we fall in love with them because of their failures and flaws.

When we meet Maddie, she is a nightgown-clad kid in the back of her mother’s Buick. We watch as she learns to straighten her back throughout the course of the novel. She is a character we are rooting for. We want her to find her voice, we want her to be happy. We know the choice she will have to make is inevitable and we trust her; we want her to do the right thing. Amidst all the mint-flavored smoke and mirrors of Bright Leaf cigarettes, in a town that, quite literally, lived and breathed tobacco, we see her standing on the edge of controversy.

“How could our beloved tobacco be bad? Tobacco farming and manufacturing fueled the whole state of North Carolina from top to bottom. The town we were driving through had been built on tobacco money, and so was every school, church, and store I’d ever seen…Where would we be without Bright Leaf Tobacco Company?”

The author has brought her character to stand at the crossroads of what she has always known and what she now believes to be true. It is a well-known coming-of-age struggle made unique by the exquisitely crafted world of Bright Leaf, the lie of big tobacco, and the cast of characters whose lives serve as both inspiration and cautionary tale as Maddie decides if doing what is right is worth everything it will cost her.

The Tobacco Wives
By Adele Myers
Published March 1, 2022
William Morrow & Company