Croaker's Reviews > God's Little Acre

God's Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell
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's review
Feb 18, 2008

it was ok
Recommended to Croaker by: No one
Recommended for: No one
Read in February, 2008

God’s Little Acre

Why do I read the books I do? I look for prize winners (Pulitzer, Booker, etc.) and notable books (New York Times, E-Lists and Book lists), or publisher (Oxford Press, University of Chicago Press). If someone (except Oprah) makes a list of ‘notable’ books to be read, I usually believe it. Reputation also is a factor in what I read. Erskine Caldwell is an author with a reputation (Tobacco Road) – he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1984, and by the time he died his books had sold over eighty million copies. I don’t necessarily base my decisions on the number of book sold – after all Barbara Cortland and Victoria Holt have probably sold more books than the Bible. But, his is a name that I thought was associated with good literature.

The book was published in 1933, the Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939. If the Grapes of Wrath had been published first, I would have said that Caldwell wrote a book based on the Grapes set in Georgia. Perhaps Steinbeck based the Grapes on Caldwell’s book, but it is harder for me to believe. Steinbeck uses language to paint a graphic picture, while Caldwell seems to use graphic sexuality as shock value to entice people to read his books. It may be that the book realistically portrays the poor whites in the early 1930s; I don’t know. It is difficult to believe that the sexual brutality as described in the book was a common thread of the daily life; perhaps it wasn’t, but only a part of the Walden family. The portrayal of the southern family life is degrading to everyone (whites and blacks) living in Georgia at that time.

There is no doubt that existence was more hand to mouth. Dreams of an easy existence seem to be more prevalent in the south; maybe that is prejudice on my part. The family of Ty Ty Waldon includes three boys (Shaw, Buck and Jim Leslie) and two girls (Rosamond and Darling Jill); Buck is married to Griselda, and Will Thompson is married to Rosamond. Will Thompson is a ‘lint-head’ (cotton-mill worker in the valley). Jim Leslie has left the family farm and moved to the ‘hill’ where he has married into a rich mill-owner family. There is inference that Jim Leslie’s wife is sick, perhaps with a sexually-transmitted decease.

Ty Ty Waldon is the father and leader of the family. Ty Ty is truly a patriarchial figure, which the boys seem to accept, while they don’t always obey. The family has two black workers and their wives who live off the same land as the Waldons. The only other character in book is Pluto, the opposite of the other males in the story. He is grossly over weight and is lazy. He is running for sheriff, and he is constantly complaining that he needs to be out ‘counting votes’, while hanging around Darling Jill. He seems to accept her constant sexual adventures. Ty Ty is obsessed with finding gold on his property. Over fifteen years, he has dug up most of his farm in search of gold, with holes everywhere. The story seems to revolve around the search for gold and the complex sexual entanglements of the family, at times incestuous.

The title of the book seems a little contrived. Ty Ty sets aside an acre of his farm, the proceeds of which are to be given to God. Of course, the search for gold displaces the meager attempts at growing cotton and Ty Ty has no difficulty in moving the acre to another part of the farm when he feels so inclined. The dichotomy between their unquestioned belief in God and their acceptance of incest and random sexual couplings seems to go unquestioned. Early in the story, Ty Ty, who claims he is scientific in his approach to digging for gold, kidnaps an albino (Dave), who is supposed to be good luck and know where to dig. The last you really hear about Dave is when he and Darling Jill are ‘wrestling around’ in the dark under a tree with most of the family (including her father) watching until Griselda makes them go in the house.

The repetitive style of Caldwell may be effective in short doses, but I feel he takes it too far. His narrative of how attractive Griselda is, how much of a woman she is and the feelings she instills in him and by inference all men, is repeated to every man he meets. His repeated telling of watching Griselda undress and bathe, and her how her proud breasts just stand right up, and the things it makes a man want to do, makes its point, and perhaps exemplifies how this man thought, but does it exemplify all the men of the South during that period? I doubt it. All the men we meet in the book are influenced by his retelling of how Griselda looks, even his son Jim Leslie. Ultimately, Ty Ty’s prodding of Jim Leslie about the body of Griselda and the things if makes a man want to do, ends with Jim Leslie’s murder by her husband, Buck.

The lack of remorse about their acts seems to be entirely absent, including the women. In fact, Darling Jill seems to condone the actions of Will Thompson when he takes Griselda (in front of his wife Rosamond), by stating that Will Thompson is a ‘real’ man. Early in the story, Darling Jill, Griselda, Pluto travel to the mill-town of Horse Creek Valley to ask Will and by inference his wife Rosamond, to travel back with them to the homestead to help dig. The narrative has them staying over night in the house of Will and Rosamond. When Rosamond goes to the store early the next morning, Darling Jill gets into the bed of Will and Rosamond. Rosamond comes home and catches them. She beats them both with a hair brush, but then she and Darling Jill console each when Will leaves the house. Shortly thereafter, Will is killed when he and the other men and women of the valley storm the mill to ‘turn on the power’, believing this will allow them to return to work. They all return to the homestead after Will’s funeral to play out the final scenes of the book with Buck killing Jim Leslie, and ‘going for a walk’ over the back fence (dimly reminiscent in action only of Tom Jode leaving his mother after the killing of a camp guard and his passionate speech about socialist rights of the working man), and Ty Ty going down in their final hole adjacent to the house and continuing to dig for the nonexistent gold.

My recommendation – In 1933 it may have had something to offer, although even then, I can’t imagine what. Today it could be read as an example of Caldwell’s writing, but other than that, skip it. There are so many other good well-written books to read, this doesn’t make my list. Today, this is a story told on day-time soaps – for the shock value only.


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