Thursday, May 23, 2013

2014 Contenders: Sugar, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ten-year-old Sugar lives on a sugar plantation in Louisiana during the turbulent, difficult years of Reconstruction. Her mother is dead, her father has never returned after being sold during the closing days of slavery, and she has to contend with the grueling challenge of planting and harvesting sugarcane. The community of plantation workers is there to help her, but change is afoot, personified by a group of Chinese workers who are hired to help work the fields. And what will become of Sugar's friendship with Billy, the son of the plantation's owner?

It's not a bad premise, and it has the advantage of covering some events that aren't particularly familiar -- I know I wasn't aware that some plantations in the South hired laborers from China during Reconstruction. Unfortunately, however, the execution doesn't really succeed.

The first thing I noticed when I picked the book up was the strangely-cadenced prose. It's unusually clipped, full of odd sentence fragments and half-sentences. It's a first-person narrative, but there's nothing in Sugar's character that made the idiosyncratic prose feel natural, especially given her devotion to storytelling. Additionally, the story is presented in the present tense. I tend not to like the present tense as a stylistic choice unless there's a very specific reason for it (e.g., the stream-of-consciousness nature of adult novels such as Ulysses or If on a winter's night a traveler), and nothing in the otherwise straightforward narrative of Sugar seemed to demand an unusual presentation. Frankly, I kind of wondered if the book might have been better as a verse novel, a format which doesn't punish those kind of stylistic choices.

Sugar also seemed to me to be heavy-handed in its themes -- characters are constantly discussing what it means to be "free," with the kind of self-consciousness that takes the reader out of the story. The opportunity for meditation on the nature of freedom is already there in the narrative without needing to call so much explicit attention to itself. The same could easily be said about the many conversations about how "the times are changing."

The characters didn't really come alive for me either. Sugar has little to distinguish her from any number of other spunky, ahead-of-their-times protagonists in historical novels, Beau is essentially just Ducks from last year's Tracks, and many of the supporting characters are far too eager to utter tired lines such as Missus Beale's: "Sugar already has too many fancies in her head. It isn't natural."

Jewell Parker Rhodes is a well-respected author whose awards include a 2011 Coretta Scott King Honor for Ninth Ward. I think it's awesome that she's chosen an unusual setting for Sugar; I just wish that the novel as a whole lived up to its promise.

Published in May by Little, Brown and Company / Hachette

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