REVIEWED BY ANNE ELIZABETH WEISGERBER
Curing Time by Tim Swink | Pegasus Books, 2014 | ISBN: 978-0991099313 | 212 pages
Curing Time by Tim Swink is a southern tale, highlighting the struggles of North Carolina tobacco farmers, circa 1957-9. The plot braids together a love story, local folklore, legacy farming, and predatory banking. Farmer Hume Rankin is pitted against a big Bank and the inevitable agribusiness juggernaut that will influence its lending practices.
Curing Time is a Greensboro News & Record 2014 Reader’s Choice Award Winner, and Swink was voted best local author, to boot. I like the book; it doesn’t shy away from conversations about race, poverty, and marital devotion. As someone interested in agronomy, I especially enjoyed passages that detailed the old methods when crops were planted, tended, and harvested by hand. In today’s homogenized and globalized world, it’s a treat to read literature that has local color, and shows universal themes of struggle and redemption on dear stages.
To me, Curing Time is enjoyable as buying great barbecue from a roadside trailer, or enjoying fresh oysters on ice at the dock: all treasured souvenirs for a well-traveled reader. Swink tells a story that can only come from the proud and pine-scented Tar Heel state. Much of that is owing to the settings.
The prologue presents a cinematic beginning: Two travelers discover evidence of a grisly crime in an idyllic forest creek, and this is an alluring launch point for readers. Chapter one then takes the timeline back two summers, and here Swink begins building toward a dramatic conclusion.
The story is set in tobacco country, and the conflicts are both earthly and supernatural. When Hume isn’t sighting mischievous wood sprites out of the corner of his eye, he encounters owls that say “Huumm? Huumm, are you ready?” In one scene, he actually burrows into the dirt furrows of his land because “he just felt a need.”
One memorable passage signals the coming end of the old-time harvest traditions, as Hume spends the night maintaining 110-degree temperatures in a cure barn with his tenant worker. Hume says:
“Take the barn there. My daddy built that with his own hands. Felled and notched the trees himself. Built it to withstand season after season, out in the elements. That’s a work of art, sitting there. Nowadays, some of the farmers over in Brown Summit and Monticello are talking about putting up these new, fast curing bulk barns that are made out of tin! Put the tobacco in and leave it—come back when the tobacco’s finished curing. No more need for nights like tonight, out here by the fire. And they talk of putting a tractor out between the rows instead of a mule. That ain’t right. A man can’t talk to a tractor like he can a mule.”
Hume has a drinking problem, a jealousy problem, and the weather will not cooperate when his livelihood depends on it. The plot sends Hume on a journey of self-discovery, which his wife likens to tapasia, a straightening by fire. But what will trigger Hume’s cure, as he’s strapped to a farm left to him by a bitter and selfish father? A farm on its third crippling year of bad weather with the banker calling in all loans at the end of the season?
This is a story filled with the natural imagery of its hot summer setting, and Swink has an ear for dialect. I love the turns of phrase that are sprinkled throughout. At dusk while tending his fields, the protagonist admits he “held partial to this time of day;” in the morning he might eat “baked biscuits, smothered in red-eye gravy,” folks are “sot in their ways,” and as the tobacco tilts toward the curing portion of its life cycle, “stalks were about knee high and able to lay it by.” This is all wonderful. My ear craves this allegiance to dialect, (and Swink thoughtfully shares for a poor Yankee like me that red gravy is a dish involving coffee and ham.)
In terms of criticism, I’m not sure how I feel about epilogues, and this novel has a couple of false starts. To my taste, it may have been sufficient to skip some of the introductory material – perhaps the song lyrics merited a passing nod in the acknowledgements? – and cut right to the story. There are also some distracting errata that might be addressed in a future edition.
On the whole, the book gives plenty to think about as the US continues to turn from its agrarian beginnings. Earlier this summer, Annie Proulx explored the monetization of forests in her epic Barkskins. Swink left me pondering: what’s the next step for that tobacco land in North Carolina? Might there be a renaissance of small-farm marijuana grow businesses one day, a new generation of small farms that can eke out a living bringing cured pot and hemp to the market? It appears today that legislature and agribusiness keep getting closer and closer to legalizing cannabis. North Carolina’s tobacco earth seems primed for the switch.
Anne E. Weisgerber has recent stories published or forthcoming in New South, The Airgonaut, Tahoma Literary Review, Vignette Review, and Jellyfish Review. She is a freelance fiction editor, and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2016. When not teaching, she’s working on a novel that spans five generations, or hanging out with the #fishtankwriters. Follow her @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com.