Godpretty in the Tobacco Fields

Written by Kim Michele Richardson
Review by Rebecca Kightlinger

“I’ve been working in the fields since knee-high, and ain’t nothing but all kinds of GodUgly keeps happening around here.”

It’s hard to imagine a patch of earth less likely to produce GodPretty than Gunnar Royal’s snake-infested tobacco field in Nameless, Kentucky. Yet it is in that field that Gunnar strives to cultivate “GodPretty,” his term for strict Christian obedience and spiritual purity, in his orphaned niece, RubyLyn, the story’s fifteen-year-old narrator and protagonist.

Through scripture, toil, and frequent mouth-washings with a “tincture of biting herbs steeped in moonshine,” the former state executioner tries to break RubyLyn of her aspirations and her sass. His goal? To keep her in line until she can one day take over his tobacco operations. RubyLyn, though, has other ideas. Determined to escape Appalachia’s crushing poverty, child abuse, and bleak prospects, she has set her eye on winning the tobacco competition at the 1969 Kentucky State Fair and on using her winnings to get out of Nameless and become an artist.

The story opens with first-person narration heavy with the diction of the Kentucky hills, bringing the reader immediately into RubyLyn’s world. A few chapters later, while the reader is still enjoying the dialect, Richardson wisely reins it in, skillfully retaining RubyLyn’s colorful narrative voice while allowing dialogue to carry the most eloquent rural colloquialisms.

Filled with the music of Appalachia, the wrath-of-God discipline of a sinner trying to keep a youngster on the straight and narrow, and the bred-in-the-bone dignity of a downtrodden community so secluded that its barefoot children don’t even realize they’re considered “poor,” GodPretty in the Tobacco Fields, a memorable story of secrets and scandal, reckoning and redemption, is fine Southern fiction.