I want to start this review by saying that Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes, is just one of the loveliest books I’ve read in a long, long time. I sat there today, after breakfast, just reading and reading. Yes, of course, partly to see what happened, but in a big way just to stay immersed in the beautiful words. Rhodes prose in this book is at once tight and rich, sparse and lush. In structure, Sugar reminded me a little bit of Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s A Diamond in the Desert. Both books have very short, extremely immediate chapters, and both narrators gave me the sense of being stuck in an isolated place, a place that is their world, but not the world. This makes sense, probably, since Tetsu–the main character of Fitzmaurice’s book–is trapped in a Japanese concentration camp and Sugar, although no longer a slave, has never been off the plantation where she was born. The scene in which she puts her foot on other land for the first time is, to say the least, powerful and painful.
Sugar takes place on River Road Plantation, in Louisiana, starting in 1870, five years after slaves were freed. Rhodes picked a, to me, fascinating period of history to write about, with a lot of information and details with which I was not familiar. First, the crop being worked on the plantation is not cotton or tobacco, but sugar cane. Sugar the character hates sugar the plant and the product, because–for her–sugar isn’t sweet, but hard. Hard to plant, hard to harvest, hard to process. If you’d asked me if I knew that sugar cane was a crop in the south, I’d have said, yes, sure, but still…it was a new world for me to enter. And then Sugar–at ten–is the youngest worker on the plantation, and the next youngest leaves soon after the book starts. Sugar’s father was sold before the slaves were free, and her mother died a few years ago. She is cared for by an older couple, by the black community, and very much by herself, as well. Basically, all the young adults have left the plantation to go north. Another piece of history I wasn’t tuned into. The black workers are elderly and work slowly, at least in the eyes of the plantation owner, Mister Wills, so he brings in a dozen Chinese men to work. A completely new fact for me. The black workers assume this means trouble, that Mister Wills will keep the Chinese workers and tell the black workers to go. A saying among the older blacks, one that Sugar hates, is “The bad I know is better than the bad I don’t.” They have stayed on the plantation, rather than going north, because this world they know. Now they worry they will be pushed out of the one in which they chose to stay.
As I describe it, River Road sounds like a pretty miserable place. And it is. Rhodes doesn’t soften her descriptions of the hours and difficulty of the work, or of the attitude and treatment the blacks receive from the white owner or the horrible overseer. She draws a sharp contrast between the shack where Sugar sleeps and the room she visits when Billy, the owners’ son, is ill. A whip only appears once in the story, and it’s used to set up a major turning point, but it’s not a surprise to anyone there. Sugar’s mother used to say about the owner that the was “Not a bad master, but not a good one, either.” Which is pretty much the feeling that comes across.
But…and I’m really not sure how big a but this is, things in the book essentially work out okay. Bad things happen, and a lot of bad things don’t. None of this stopped me from turning page after page to stay with the story, and none of it made me feel like Rhodes has done anything but write a fully layered story, with characters that reach out of the pages and draw the reader in–especially Sugar. In no way do I feel like Rhodes was trying to pretty up a non-pretty world; plus, I remind myself, this book is written for middle-graders, not for me. But I had a few moments of wondering whether things work out too okay. And then I’d read another word or sentence and be lost once more in the story.
I’ve had the ebook from the library on my kindle for a few days, and I thought–when I started reading–that I had maybe picked it from the list I built during the #weneeddiversebooks weeks. But I checked those lists, and nope, it’s not on them–so it must have been another lucky find on the library website. And I don’t know if thinking it was from that list, thinking about it as a “diverse” choice impacted my perspective while I read. Honestly, though, how could it not? And I ask myself, what are you asking to be different? Did you want a few more bad guys? Did you want one of the Chinese men to be a yuck like the overseer? Did you want someone in the black community to not accept the Chinese along with everyone else? And I don’t think so, because that would have been predictable and trite and cliche. It would have felt as though Rhodes dropped a character in just to play that role, and I really, really hate when someone does that.
So what am I saying? I am saying, first and foremost, that you need to read this book, because it is a good book, a beautiful book, and it will do what every beautiful book does–it will enrich you. And then I am probably saying that, guess what? There are layers to reading just as there are layers to writing, and that opening our minds and hearts to what comes along when we turn to Page 1 is not always simple, but is always important.