Sherry Chandler's Reviews > Drivin' Woman

Drivin' Woman by Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier
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Mar 02, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: betterthantelevision
Read in February, 2009

This novel, which apparently made the best seller list when it was published in 1942, but I had never heard of it until I read about it in Thomas D. Clark's Agrarian Kentucky, in his discussion of Kentucky agrarian writers. There she was, right along with Elizabeth Madox Roberts and Robert Penn Warren.

Who was this woman?

So I went looking and found a yellowing copy still on the circulating shelves of the University of Kentucky library.

It did not take me long to figure out why the book has faded from view. The book follows our heroine, America [!:] Moncure from her father's Virginia plantation right after Appomattox to Maysville, Kentucky in 1911 and it is guilty of some pretty embarrassing racial attitudes. In the first section especially, the story is full of loyal old mammies and butlers and evil carpetbaggers.

If one is able to persist, however, and filter out the racism (or look at the racism with enlightened eyes), this 642-page tome turns into a pretty good social history of post-Civil War Kentucky. As America leaves behind her plantation attitudes and becomes more and more a tobacco farmer, her old friend, the Appalachian country boy Tugger Blake, rises as a Robber Baron. He makes a fortune on Wall Street and becomes important in the Tobacco Trust.

The novel ends with the Tobacco Wars that roiled Kentucky at the turn of the 20th century. Although the members of the tobacco pool are more heroic in Chevalier's Drivin' Woman than in Robert Penn Warren's Night Rider, she doesn't white wash them. She shows the violence, which is in some ways a continuation of the Civil War, and the way men who turn to violence tend to become more violent. The Night Riders, though their cause was just, had a certain kinship to the Klan.

The Tobacco Trust is the villain of this novel. Tugger Blake is a man who took a wrong turn and ruined his own life through greed. Among the farmers, those who hold out against the pool have their reasons and show great courage. Those who join the pool are also courageous but also, because they ride masked, capable of animalistic behavior.

The book's attitude toward the clan is a tad too D. W. Griffith for comfort but the Journal of Negro History for October 1942 list Drivin' Woman as an important work "bearing indirectly on the Negro." [The Journal of Negro History was a publication of Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, Inc.]

I would not recommend this novel. It was troublesome. But for one embarked on a study of the social history of Kentucky, I found it useful.
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03/29/2017 marked as: read

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message 1: by Carla (new)

Carla Drivin' Woman was on a recommended list I found somewhere and this was one of the few reviews of it that I found. One quibble that I have with the review is that I wish she had been more specific about the issue of racism in the book. The Klan was such an evil group that I can accept her point that anything said in it's favor is a negative. However, examples of racism in the book should've been clarified. Racism as a label is not enough in itself. Many times in current society people are unjustly accused of racism. I remember about 10 years ago a news story about a man being vilified because he used the phrase "calling a spade, a spade". It is not a racist phrase, and has nothing to do with prejudice but there were a lot of angry words said about the man. On the other hand, if the book claimed that blacks are lesser beings, etc... then of course, that's different.

Also, as a southerner, we were taught that carpetbaggers were white Yankees who came down to teach the south a punitive lesson. I'm not sure why the author of the review has a problem with using that term or Chevalier's disdain of them.

When tags like "racism" are used, they should be clarified.


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