Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes, illustrations by Neil Brigham.
Originally published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Hachette, New York, 2013.
My edition is Scholastic, New York, 2015.
Middle grade historical fiction, 272 pages + author’s note.
Lexile: 430L .
AR Level: 2.9 (worth 4.0 points) .
NOTE: This is the second book published (chronologically the first) in the Louisiana Girls Trilogy.
The ten-year-old narrator of this novel is named after the type of plantation she works on: Sugar. Slavery ending doesn’t seem to have changed much, other than all of her friends moving away. Orphaned Sugar doesn’t have the resources or family to leave. But she does have spirit and dreams – dreams of playing all day, going to school, and even of making new friends. When the plantation owner decides to bring Chinese workers in, are they competition or potential allies?
Since I’ve been complaining about historical fiction featuring black characters, I decided to try to find some good examples, so we took a trip to the used bookstore. This historical novel takes place over the course of a year, measured by the different seasons of the sugarcane cycle. It starts with winter in 1870 and moves through planting and then harvest in 1871. The epilogue takes place in spring of that year.
I appreciated that Rhodes doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of working on a sugarcane plantation. She keeps it appropriate for young readers, but doesn’t pretend sharecropping was in any way fun.
The “Chinamen” are introduced by chapter three, however, they don’t actually arrive until a third of the way through the book. It’s only near the end that they become major characters. I’d love to read an #ownvoices review about this aspect of the book, because I had only the vaguest idea that there were Chinese workers in the American South during this time period. I’m not sure how good the Chinese rep in this was.
The Chinese men (there are no women with them, although some have wives and families back home) occupy an uneasy middle ground between black and white. The man transporting them delights in treating them like slaves, while the plantation owner is furious about that, but not willing to treat them as equals either. The black plantation workers aren’t exactly hostile, but wary of losing their jobs and unwilling to socialize with the newcomers. I did love the chapter titled with a Chinese character.
Sugar’s friendship with the plantation owner’s white son, Billy, felt unrealistic. While there were friendships among black and white children during this time period, the level to which the friendship went, especially given Sugar’s reputation as a troublemaker, seemed unlikely to me.
I do understand Rhodes’ goal of showing three different perspectives. Because Billy spouts his family’s nonsense at times, Rhodes is able to have Sugar more directly counteract it, which she couldn’t do if confronted with the verbal prejudice of Billy’s father or the overseer.
Sugar has a lot of spunk, and I came around in the end, but she did irritate me at points. I connected more with her surrogate parents. My favorite parts of the novel were the stories from African and later Chinese culture. The woodblock art heading each chapter and section break was also delightful.
Although the reading level of this book is low, it’s better suited for middle grade readers than early elementary. While there weren’t necessarily specific scenes I found inappropriate, Sugar lives a harsh life. Racist comments are made (but combated by the text), and harsh events described, such as Sugar’s mother’s death. I wouldn’t use this in the classroom below third grade, and fifth is probably the sweet spot for this novel.
This book was good but not a must-read. Based on the description, I think Ninth Ward will be a better fit for me. However, this is a valuable contribution to an area that, as far as I know, has never been written about in historical fiction before.