Adele Myers’s The Tobacco Wives (HarperCollins 2022) hit several of my boxes: debut author, NC setting, and the author is a fellow UNC alumna. It’s one of the few new releases I’ve prioritized in my TBR, and while there are some notable issues, I don’t regret it.
Quick & dirty summary: After 15-year-old Maddie’s father dies in WWII, her mother becomes a bit unhinged while dealing with her grief, anger, and desperation. She abandons Maddie with Maddie’s aunt, a seamstress in Bright Leaf, with no clear date for return. While Maddie visited her aunt every year and had learned to sew under her tutelage, she’s never come this early in the summer – it’s too busy and important a time for the seamstress who makes the formal attire for the “tobacco wives.” When her aunt becomes sick, Maddie finds herself forced to fill in. She uncovers a confidential letter that could destroy not only her aunt’s livelihood, but the fabric of the entire town. But the consequences of staying quiet are even worse.
I’m from NC, and any one from this state knows tobacco built us. We know how much the leafy green plant defined our existence and built our empires. And we sure were proud of our Bright Leaf tobacco, an accidental development in the 1830s. (A slave created the curing process by accident, and we’ve never given proper credit where credit is due.) Our biggest sports rivalry, UNC & Duke, is even called Tobacco Road. We know our tobacco. And we know (or know people who know) tobacco farmers whose lives forever changed in the 1960s when the surgeon general released his report about the dangers of tobacco. And that is why I think Myers’s conscious decision to set her novel in 1946 and play with the timeline regarding known dangers and studies regarding tobacco use annoys me. The novel is historically inaccurate and should be viewed as a reimagined past.
On a related note, the novel also struggles to find its identity. The opening is far removed from the “Nancy Drew-light” story that eventually emerges. Myers could have readily removed the letter Maddie finds regarding the dangers of smoking from the plot – there was no need to have Maddie “go up against” the rich ladies in the fictional Bright Leaf. There was enough meat to what she already had without it – post-WWII, women in the workplace as the men were returning home and wanting to return to their jobs, the great divide between those who ran the tobacco empires and the hardworking men and women who kept them running, how advertising built the tobacco industry, and a young seamstress abandoned by her mother while still grieving her father who finds herself in a world she couldn’t even imagine. Maddie’s relationship with Mitzi had so much potential. So much meat without having to play fast and loose with timelines.
That said, this is a solid debut. It’s a quick read with a lot of interesting moving pieces. I encourage you to read the book and focus on those pieces, not on the inaccurate timeline or the letter regarding the studies.