Burning debate: a novel centered on moral dilemmas in a city dominated by tobacco

This is a historical fictional story set in the late 1940s in the fictional town of Bright Leaf, North Carolina. The reader can draw a comparison to the present-day community of Winston-Salem, which at one time was considered the tobacco capital of the south.

The book tells a disturbing story about the tobacco industry. Everyone smoked, including pregnant women. Big corporations have manipulated information through advertising to make smoking attractive. The “tobacco wives,” so called because they were married to successful tobacco executives, seemed to have it all: beauty, wealth, and privilege. But young Maddie, who visits her aunt for the summer, discovers disturbing truths. What would a wife who smokes do if she learned that her husband was withholding medical information linking smoking to serious health problems, especially for pregnant women?

Maddie’s mother dropped her off with Aunt Etta in Bright Leaf when she was 15. Aunt Etta has a thriving dressmaking business and makes exquisite dresses for the “tobacco women” to wear to their galas and special celebrations. Even at her young age, Maddie is an aspiring seamstress and Aunt Etta welcomes her help. Unfortunately, during this busy season, Aunt Etta is hospitalized with a serious case of measles. Maddie is going to stay with Mitzi, the prominent wife of the president of the local tobacco company. She gets to work making the dresses that have already been promised to wealthy women for the next gala.

It is during this turbulent time that Maddie accidentally discovers information revealing medical studies that indicate the dangers of smoking, especially for the health of women and newborns. Should she disclose this information? After all, the community depends on the tobacco industry and their livelihood could be destroyed. She is already worried about the poor working conditions endured by women working in factories. When the men went to war, the women took their factory jobs but are paid less and will lose their jobs when the men return. But when Maddie sees the ads promoting smoking for young pregnant women, she has to divulge what she has discovered. She is surprised and outraged that no one is challenging those in power. Maddie finds her voice that summer and will continue to fight the tobacco industry well into adulthood.

This is Adele Myers’ first novel. She grew up in North Carolina and this fascinating story is based on her childhood in tobacco country. It is hard to believe that corporate greed has caused such devastating consequences. I admired young Maddie for using her voice to spread the truth about the dangers of smoking as well as advocating for women’s rights. I have never smoked but I found this book very informative. I enjoyed the reality of the portrayal of the south at that time and also the fictionalized story of Maddie discovering herself. It’s a change of pace and well worth the read.

Discussion questions:

• How did Maddie’s opinion of women change over the summer?

• What have been some of the opportunities and challenges resulting from women taking over male jobs in factories?

• Communities were proud of their cities and their industry. How do you think they felt when they found out that cigarettes made people sick and even killed them?

• Tobacco executives learned of the dangers of smoking but continued to support the industry. Did they believe cigarettes were harmless or were they just looking away?

• Mitzi did not release the information Maddie discovered to the community, but she used it as leverage to improve working conditions for women. Do you agree with his decision?

• What is the important lesson that Maddie learned?

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Jacquie O’Neil, mother of Times Leader Media Group Publisher Kerry Miscavage, reviewed this book. She and her daughter each contribute to this column.

Irene B. Bowles