Although a movie was based on his The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man, Guy Owen considered Journey for Joedel his best novel. For it, he won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Journey for Joedel is about a sharecropping father and his son, Joedel, hauling tobacco to town, selling it, and returning home with their earnings.
It doesn’t sound comparable to Homer’s Odyssey, nor am I claiming it to be, but much happened along the way to and from the market. As Sally Buckner, a former Guy Owen student, describes Joedel’s trip in the introduction of the novel’s 2010 reprint: “Every incident rings with moral complexity that challenges young Joedel’s certainty about right and wrong.”
Indeed, the journey is one of character maturation for the 13-year-old. Joedel, for instance, wrestles with whether he should cull rotting tobacco leaves and lose some profit, or gamble that buyers will overlook the few, bad leaves so that the quality of his good leaves remains unquestioned and attracts more potential buyers. Joedel, whose mother is part Lumbee, also deals with positive and negative remarks concerning his racial heritage.
Indeed, Owen does not shy away from including passages dealing with difficult issues such as family disagreements and racial attitudes. The novel includes hardened characters but also kind-hearted people. There are swindlers at the tobacco market, and there is a knife fight. A 1970 Kirkus Review offered this description of the novel: “It’s an old story of innocence roughly lost, knowledge painfully awakened, and only Mr. Owen’s intensely visual detail offsets the obvious.” Although the book details an actual trip, the real journey is the moral lessons that the young boy learns.
Like many Southern writers, including William Faulkner and Wendell Berry, Guy Owen turned his hometown or hometown area into a fictitious place. The novel is set in the 1930s in fictitious Cape Fear County, a place that seems similar to Guy Owen’s childhood Bladen County: the backdrop is an agricultural tobacco community and the economy has been hard hit by the Great Depression. Many times a fictitious work tells us a lot concerning the author. Like many novelists, Owen used his reminiscences as material and to help tell a story. The esteemed novelist Walker Percy described Journey for Joedel as “touching, tender, and highly readable.”
Sally Buckner, “Journey for Joedel: An Examination of Tobacco and Truth” in Journey for Joedel (Winston-Salem, reprint, 2010) and Kirkus Review, “Journey for Joedel” May 29, 1970 https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/guy-owen-3/journey-for-joedel/ (accessed on June 4, 2015).