The Tobacco Wives
By Adele Myers
William Morrow: March 1, 2022
$27.99, 337 pages
Adele Myers’ debut is an absorbing novel about a 16-year-old girl’s coming of age in the heart of tobacco country in 1945-46. Maddie Sykes is feeling lost after her father’s death in the war, and her mother wants a chance to rebuild her life, so she drops Maddie off with her Aunt Etta, a successful seamstress in Bright Leaf, North Carolina. Etta designs gowns for the wealthy “tobacco wives” and provides uniforms for the employees of the town’s main employer, Bright Leaf Tobacco Company.
Over the past few years of summer visits, she has made Maddie her protégé. This work gives Maddie a close-up view of the lives of the women, which she observes with fascination and admiration. She soon becomes aware of the economic and racial disparities between management and labor at BLTC and begins to have misgivings about the tobacco wives’ lavish lifestyle. But Maddie has her hands full assisting Etta in the design and creation of gowns for the upcoming Bright Leaf Gala and knows that as a young woman and a guest, she should keep her head down and mind her own business.
Maddie is particularly intrigued by Elizabeth “Mitzy” Winston, wife of Bright Leaf’s owner and the town’s most influential woman. For unexplained reasons which often make Maddie uncomfortable, Mitzy treats her like the daughter she never had. When Etta becomes seriously ill, Maddie is pressed into service as her replacement, with help from a “colorful” local tailor, Anthony. Mitzy insists that Maddie stay with her and provides her with a fully equipped studio.
Maddie is talented but wonders if she can fulfill this crucial role. She’s worried about her aunt, feels awkward staying with the Winstons, and struggles to step up in the many dress design appointments with the tobacco executives’ wives, an eccentric group with very particular ideas about their gowns and little patience with a teenage seamstress.
At the same time, Bright Leaf Tobacco Company is gearing up to introduce a new product, MOMints, a mint-flavored cigarette that will be marketed to women. The proposed advertising campaign features several of the tobacco wives and the town’s most esteemed doctor, Dr. Hale, who serves on the BLTC board as medical advisor. The ads promote MOMints as both glamorous and helpful in providing a calming influence for 1940s women, busy with their many roles. Maddie stumbles upon some confidential information about MOMints and finds herself facing a moral dilemma.
The heart of The Tobacco Wives concerns Maddie’s response to these two challenges. Myers’ characterization of Maddie credibly presents her intellectual and emotional growth as she juggles her high-pressure job and her attempts to learn more about MOMints and the tobacco business. A love interest adds a touch of romance to the plot, but not without complications involving the Winstons and Dr. Hale. There are several ominous moments of foreshadowing about smoking in this time long before the Surgeon General’s report was issued. In short, Maddie finds that everything is much more complicated than she had imagined. But it’s up to her to determine the right course of action and figure out who her true allies are. Maddie is inspired, in part, by Cornelia Hale, the most formidable woman in Bright Leaf, who does not suffer fools gladly (including her son, the doctor) and thinks Maddie is a young woman worth mentoring.
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An additional subplot concerns the local women who have filled in for the men away at war. They begin to make demands about their working conditions, placing the company in a precarious position. As temporary workers, they are treated poorly by the executives at BLTC, who are a particularly smarmy and sexist bunch.
While some of the supporting characters and some scenes are drawn too broadly and veer into stereotypes, they don’t seriously detract from the strengths of The Tobacco Wives.
Myers skillfully combines plotlines involving high society dressmaking, tobacco in the years before people truly understood its dangers, and a suspenseful search for the truth with consequences for the North Carolina tobacco industry and cigarette smokers nationwide. Add in Maddie’s burgeoning independence and awareness of the complex nature of life in Bright Leaf, and it makes for a fast and satisfying read.