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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: The novel that sheds light onto the Triangle's tobacco-rich history

DTH Photo Illustration. Several copies of 'The Tobacco Wives: A Novel' sit on a table.

“Southern discomfort” was the phrase that author Adele Myers used to describe the subject matter of her recently-debuted novel, "The Tobacco Wives," at a book signing and discussion at Flyleaf Books two weeks ago. 

I sat in the audience because Myers is a UNC alumna and my mother’s former Granville Towers roommate. Some of the other attendees included a few of the author’s friends from high school, college and adulthood. Myers read an excerpt of the book to us, answered our array of questions and recounted her early years spent with family in Winston-Salem, which became the inspiration for the novel. 

"The Tobacco Wives" joins the steady stream of historical fiction novels penned from the likes of authors like Fiona Davis, Taylor Jenkins Reid and Lisa Wingate. Myers is joining this list with her work, a tale about “the hidden history of women’s activism during the post-war period,” set against the backdrop of the tobacco industry and its effect on one North Carolina town.

The story, set in 1946, follows 15-year-old Maddie Sykes as she embarks on an unanticipated journey in the fictional town of Bright Leaf, becoming the primary seamstress for the town’s most wealthy and glitzy women — the wives of the local tobacco executives. 

While she is up to her ears in gowns, social events and adjusting to the demands of her new clientele, she discovers unsettling news about the health effects on the tobacco that Bright Leaf had been built upon. Maddie begins to discover what is most important to her and what to do when the truth might flip a town upside down.

I read the majority of the book in one sitting. The novel introduced me to Bright Leaf and its dynamic cast of characters — quirky neighbors, two-faced women, judgmental young girls, passionate factory workers — all while building to a scandalous climax. 

I won’t spoil anything, but as I was reading, I considered the fact that I live in a county that has historically been heavily influenced by tobacco. It wasn’t until I began my research, however, that I discovered how truly immersed we are in the traces left behind. 

From the American Tobacco Campus in Durham to the famed “Tobacco Road” that symbolizes the biggest rivalry in college basketball, Orange County itself was once “heralded for agricultural prowess, with corn, wheat, soybeans and, especially, tobacco dotting the landscape for miles," according to UNC's website on the history of the Tobacco Road.

Only 11 miles away in Durham is the American Tobacco Campus, now a hub for dining and retail that was once considered the nation’s largest tobacco factory and the manufacturer for Bull Durham Tobacco. Now you can enjoy a “T-Road Sloppy Joe” from the Tobacco Road Sports Cafe Durham on the campus, eating under the shadow of the iconic water tower, emblazoned with the bright red logo of Lucky Strike Cigarettes.

Even our beloved UNC basketball hasn’t been shaped and impacted by tobacco. Although Tobacco Road can be used to describe the Durham-Chapel Hill area as a whole, it is also recognized nationwide as “a basketball oasis — the one place in the South where the hardwood sport reigns supreme," Tar Heel Times said in an article.

I had never really noticed the deep roots of the tobacco industry in the Triangle, but now can almost always see the mustached tobacco executives with their properly-dressed southern wives making their way around town and the rows-upon-rows of tobacco crops lining the rural roads between Durham and Chapel Hill. 

As for "The Tobacco Wives," I’d recommend it to anyone, but specifically to someone who is from North Carolina. Learning about the history of the state I live in through vivid imagery and a compelling story made it one of my first great reads of the year.


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