A Friendship Up to Snuff

I like to imagine the irrepressible Ruthie Free pulling pranks on Leola throughout their lifelong friendship.

When you’ve spent hours every day for eight long years with the same group of people—indeed, when you’ve invented them from bits and pieces of your own psyche—they tend to stay with you. No wonder, then, that I feel a special fondness for the characters who inhabit my novel, ‘Til All These Things Be Done, from my resilient protagonist, Leola, to her spirited guardian angel, Catherine Valchar, to her devoted sweetheart, Joe Belfigli.  Even the story’s more nefarious actors, like Leola’s tough-as-nails nemesis, Opal Suggs, or her irascible grandfather, Mr. Owen, occupy a permanent place in my imagination.

This vintage snuff tin inspired the fictional brand Ruthie prefers. It’s also a riff on Leola’s middle and nicknames and the name of her future daughter.

But it’s Ruthie Free, Leola’s lifelong friend from the orphanage, who inhabits a special place in my heart.  Brash and adventurous, fiercely opinionated but also tender hearted, Ruthie reflects a side of my personality I’ve often submerged, thinking it wasn’t likeable or feminine enough, that it might be too much for others to handle. No accident, the surname, Free, for in bringing Ruthie to life, I was able to acknowledge my wilder, messier side—as Leola does when she first meets her new friend: Maybe it was the way Ruthie stood, legs firmly planted, shoulders thrown back, like she fully owned whatever space she took up. Or p’rhaps it was the hint of challenge in her wide gray eyes…suggesting an audacity Leola hoped might rub off on herself, someday.

This scene was captured by author/photographer Clifton Johnson in his 1904 book, Highways and Byways of the South. It shows two Tennessee women dipping snuff. Johnson wrote that, in fact, the entire family was imbibing in their nicotine fix that day–including the kids!

Like BFFs everywhere, Ruthie always senses when Leola needs moral support—and sometimes immoral support too, as when she introduces Leola to the medicinal properties of powdered tobacco, aka, snuff. Ruthie’s favorite brand is Wild Scottish Rose, a name I invented based on a tobacco tin I came across in my research.

A century ago, people used snuff in various ways but Ruthie’s favorite method of delivery is to rub it around her teeth and gums, preferably with a stick made of a piquant wood like sweetgum (“adds a nice flavor to the experience”), pre-chewed to give it a brushy end.  Knowing that Leola, a survivor of the recent influenza epidemic, is still leery of wanton spit-swapping, Ruthie even provides her with a customized stick of her own to gnaw before dipping.

Contrary to popular belief, so-called ‘backwoods’ American southerners weren’t the only people to indulge in snuff (and be warned against doing so)–as this French PSA, circa 1827, attests.

At first, Leola refuses the opportunity, recalling all too well her late grandmother’s Civil War-era recollections of female snuff addicts: Eventually, she’d explained, their very tongues and lips would turn white, every tooth gone missing. Minds gone missing too.

It’s only when overwhelmed by a slew of recent troubles—including the discovery of a dark secret with the power to destroy her family—that Leola finally gives in to Ruthie’s offer…except instead of following her friend’s example, she inhales a huge pinch of snuff up each nostril, waiting for a sudden burst of lightness to her brain, a momentary sensation of devil-may-care, any release whatsoever. Instead, all she felt was fear.

In the end, of course, it’s love from folks like Ruthie, along with Leola’s refusal to numb her deepest feelings, that eventually offer real peace—and maybe, just maybe, a better future ahead.


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