The unforgiving Florida penal system of the 1920s is luridly depicted in this Southern Gothic melodrama purportedly based on real events.
North Dakota farm boy Martin Tabert seeks his fortune in the Sunshine State but instead becomes ensnared in the convict-leasing system, under which vagrants and hoboes, sentenced on trumped-up charges to county jails, are rented out as laborers to private companies. A virtual slave of the Putnam Lumber Company, Martin endures bad food and exhausting work clearing out malarial cypress swamps. Worst of all is the camp warden, or â€œwhippin’ boss,” Tom Higginbotham, whose vicious beatings of the prisoners are a bloody prelude to his sadomasochistic sex with the niece of a Putnam executive. Higginbotham has whipped Tabert to death, and the murder becomes a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre that leads to the abolition of convict-leasing. Before the story peters out in courtroom procedural, Shiver paints an absorbing panorama of life in Florida’s hard-bitten lumber towns, where even free laborers languish in debt peonage. The author is good at period detail, dialect, canny observations of the old South’s near-feudal social hierarchy and folkloric anecdotes about the bear that ran amok at a funeral or the dead man who sat in on his pals’ poker game. He is especially–perhaps obsessively–interested in the area’s apparently common penchant for sex between underage girls and adult men. Tom coerces 12-year-old Jody into an affair; at 15, she has a more wholesome tryst with a 20-year-old congressman’s son, whom she promptly marries. Another Putnam exec shoots an underling to get at his 15-year-old love interest. And often it seems overtly consensual: â€œI ain’t never done it, Rex, but I want to real bad,” pants one 17-year-old girl after flinging herself into her 37-year-old guardian’s bed.
Imagine Tobacco Road as written by Mark Twain, or The Shawshank Redemption if penned by the Marquis de Sade–it ain’t classy, but it’s often entertaining.