Over lunch a few months ago, the late Pat Conroy gushed about a new novel his imprint, Story River Press, was soon to publish. He spoke of author Michele Moore’s remarkable ability to create sympathetic characters and illuminate the segregated Charleston of the first half of the 20th century.
Conroy marveled vociferously at Moore’s extensive historical research and fine-tuned use of Gullah dialect. “The Cigar Factory,” he said, was perhaps the best book he’d ushered to the marketplace so far.
It is a very good book.
Moore’s clear objective is to represent the details of what life was like for the city’s working poor, black and white, before World War II. Her implied message also is clear: The working poor have much in common and do better when they unite against barons of capitalism inevitably more concerned with production and profit than with the well-being of the people they employ.
One could argue that the main protagonist of “The Cigar Factory” is the cigar factory itself. With finesse, Moore portrays the inner working of the place, its social hierarchy, rampant sexual harassment and racism, mechanics and ever-increasing production quotas. The factory and the poverty it sustains is the novel’s constant.
Two families — one black, one white; both of strong Catholic faith — cope and endure. They are each represented by their matriarchs, Cassie McGonegal and Meliah Amey Ravenel, who work at the cigar factory and manage to remain employed there despite upheaval and uncertainty over the decades. Both are caregivers; both worry about their loved ones; both lend support to the men in their lives; both struggle with the rent and secure less than the bare necessities for their families and themselves. They teeter on the edge of the abyss.
Of course, Meliah Amey and her people have it much worse. Blacks work in the poisonous atmosphere of the cigar factory’s basement, stemming leaves and stinking of ammonia, for a pittance. Whites work upstairs making the cigars, first by hand, later with unreliable machines, and make only a little more money than the black employees.
Moore emphasizes the segregation of the period by creating a narrative whose chapters alternate between Cassie and Meliah Amey. It’s a simple structural solution, but effective: to Moore (and the reader), the women are of equal importance, yet separating their stories stresses the injustices inherent in the Jim Crow laws that ruled the day.
There is no preaching; this is no polemic. Moore goes to great lengths to present believable characters who operate within the constricted parameters of their time and class. (She succeeds largely because of her deft use of dialogue.)
What’s more, she puts Charleston’s history to good use. Joe Ravenel, for instance, is a captain of the Mosquito Fleet, a group of black fishermen who rowed or sailed past the harbor jetties and back each day. Manus O’Brian, a man who refuses to be fooled, is a merchant seaman and pro-union activist. Father O’Shaughnessy is a hypocrite and anti-union shill for the city’s business community. Vincent de Paul is a promising musician acquainted with the Rev. Daniel Jenkins and members of the Jenkins Orphanage Band.
Vincent’s parents, Meliah Amey and Joe, save money for years in order to send the young man to the Avery Institute. Later, Vincent convinces the aging couple to attend a special recital by a visiting Marion Anderson.
Moore includes references to the debauchery on West Street; the efforts of Mayor John Grace, a Catholic, to modernize the city and build a bridge across the Cooper River; the heated politics of Jim Crow, the sailboat regattas in the harbor; the merchants in the Market; the “Brown Elite”; the filth of the back alleys; the grandeur of the High Battery and more.
The landscape of the city is interwoven with delicacy into the narrative, and to such a degree, it might be argued that Charleston is the book’s second most important character, after the cigar factory.
But Moore does not give short shrift to the people who endure the pernicious environment of the factory or the men of the Mosquito Fleet or the market vendors or the residents of the city’s poor neighborhoods. No character, however secondary, is haphazardly sketched. The contours and substance always are evident.
Moore consulted at length with language experts and historians in order to create convincing dialogue and interactions. She provided a short glossary of Gullah terms, but the reader likely won’t need to consult it but a few times; Moore’s language flows sweetly, reinforcing a sense of place and era, calling to mind Porgy’s Charleston and highlighting the ways in which black culture permeated the Lowcountry and influenced all whites, including the rabidly racist.
Once or twice Meliah Amey and Cassie cross paths. But they don’t know each other and there is no exchange. Only at the end of the book, during the strike of 1945, do they come together in shared purpose and solidarity. Asked by their bosses during labor negotiations what it was they wanted, the two women declare in unison: “To be paid fair and treated decent.” It’s the moment when the stories of Cassie and Meliah Amey converge, the climax of the entire narrative.
It’s evident that Moore invested much time and effort in doing the research for “The Cigar Factory,” yet the novel does not feel laborious. The story whisks along, pulling the reader into a beautifully rendered Charleston of yore. Despite the author’s inevitable choreography, the cast of characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves ring true.
The novel surely will appeal to anyone familiar with the Holy City or interested in its unique history, but it’s likely to attract other readers, too. Moore has made a book that speaks of universal issues in a particular way. Those issues — social and economic justice, the importance of family and place — resonate forcefully still.
Reviewer Adam Parker is book page editor. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.