God's Little Acre - Erskine CaldwellWritten in 1933, this story is set in rural Georgia in a time and location of great poverty. It was quite a sensation when it came out, because it was so full of blatant incestuous sex. First, you have Ty Ty who has raised 3 boys and 2 girls on his own. All 3 boys and one sister have married, while the youngest girl, Darling Jill, is a sex-pot sleeping with everyone who she can. Griselda, one of the sisters-in-law, has a gorgeous body and everybody wants to sleep with her. Ty Ty makes sure that he tells everyone he can talk to that her body is really hot and makes a man want to lick her. As you might imagine, disaster results.
So in one way the entire story (209 pages) is about guys lusting after girls, girls choosing to accept or reject a given lustful attempt, and the father either saying "I want everything to be peaceful" while goading every man he meets to sleep with Griselda.
There are other layers here too. The entire region is destitute. But while Ty Ty has a large spread of fertile land, he has dedicated the last 15 years of his life to digging gigantic holes in search of gold. He is starving to death - and his two negro share-croppers are also starving. Only 2 of the kids have escaped this hole-digging escapade. One is the married sister, Rosamond. She's married Will, a mill-worker. Unfortunately, the mill has shut down and the entire mill-town is starving. They are holding out for better wages and have lasted a year and a half on the barest of rations. The second is the oldest son, who made a ton of money brokering cotton and now refuses to talk to the rest of the family because of their foolish hole-digging.
So Will the mill-worker COULD work, but he and the town are holding out for principles. Ty Ty and his clan COULD farm and feed themselves - but they spend their energy digging holes for gold. There are only 2 non-family-members in the story, Pluto is an overweight man who lusts after Darling Jill. Even he refuses to work. He wants to campaign to be Sheriff, because then he'd be paid for sitting around. Dave is the albino the family grabbed to 'divine' the gold for them. He's married, but after one look at Darling Jill he stays to have sex with her.
Even the greed and lust of the men is often only half-hearted. Pluto wants to be Sheriff - but it's usually too hot for him to go talking to voters. Ty Ty gets a desire to have an albino, but then dilly dallies for hours before setting out.
The title of the book refers to Ty Ty's land, full of holes. Ty Ty feels he is generous by setting aside one acre to be "for God" - that all proceeds from the acre will be donated to the church. But in actuality, Ty Ty "moves" the acre around to make sure that he never digs on it - he doesn't want to risk his gold going to the church. It's the same with other aspects of Ty Ty's life. He feels he's scientific in his hole-digging - but he ropes and grabs an albino man to "divine" for him where to dig next. He wants his family to be peaceful and happy, while goading every male member to sleep with Griselda. None of the characters are very bright. They all are driven by instincts, usually either sex, or greed, or both. The men all go for what they want. With the exception of Darling Jill who has sex when she wants, the women all sit back and are acted on. Griselda in fact lets Will grab her because he is a "real man" - and Will's wife watches the entire thing happen, again because Will is a real man.
Which brings us to the other disappointing parts of the book. The stereotypes in the book are pretty staggering. This entire family is completely unable to care for themselves. They are animals grabbing for gold and rutting with whoever is nearby. The negros are wide-eyed and simple. They're all starving to death and they don't care. I understand of course they are exaggerations in order to make a point - but when the over-characterizations go to the ludricrous stage, it begins to lose its impact.
Also, while the book's sexual exploits are rather tame by today's standards, it is still rather sex-filled. There was a lot of interesting material here - the special acre, the way the people HAD the ability to feed themselves but chose not to do it. The way Ty Ty sought peace while undermining it. But the book instead focusses on the shocking things - of men standing and watching their naked female family members undressing, taking baths, having sex, whatever. You really do not get any sense of any character in the book having dimension. They are either horny men, or sex-object women.
That all being said, I really did feel like there was an underlayer here that was interesting. The idea of this special acre of land really touched me. First, Ty Ty moves it around to keep it 'safe' from the gold. Then Ty Ty puts it under the house, where there's no risk of it being involved in a dig attempt. Ty Ty's home is resting on God's Acre. But soon Ty Ty's digging efforts cause his own house to begin to cave in. When Ty Ty realizes that one of his sons is in danger, he desperately tries to set the "acre" in motion - to always stay beneath his son, and keep him safe.
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Erskine was born in Georgia and, as the child of a minister, his family moved around often. He did in fact work in a mill for a while, and knew many share-croppers.
Part of the publicity for this book came from the fact that the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice tried to have it banned for its sexuality. Erskine took the case to court and won.
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