Nick and Viola is a family story about a neglected period of Kentucky history and traces the impact of the tobacco wars on three generations of the Muntz family. The story, lost for two generations, recreates a family’s experience before tobacco farmers had any safety net; when monopolies controlled the price of tobacco. In 1904 the American Tobacco Company (ATC) dropped prices for tobacco below the cost of production. Populist groups formed to “pool” or hold tobacco off the market to force higher prices. Because pooling was voluntary, tensions arose between neighbors who pooled and those who didn’t. Vigilante groups, known as “Night Riders,” attacked barns and crops, and sometimes beat and killed those who refused to join the pool. Nick and Viola and their relatives did not join the pool and suffered the consequences. A barn full of tobacco burned, a gunshot killed an innocent man, and a family fell apart.
In researching the book, Derr realized the story was more than a family history. “I found that the world of tobacco was a major theme in the book. All the rituals of tobacco—planting, tilling, housing, selling—were essential to the story of my family over three generations.” The economic and political pressures of the time were also key to the story. “I knew nothing about the tobacco wars when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. I heard stories about night riders, but never knew why they existed. Writing the book was like piecing together the puzzle of my childhood world. I began to understand the forces that created the world in which I grew up.”
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