Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Sugar is 10, an orphan and although she is not longer a slave, she sure doesn't feel free.  She has lived on the River Road plantation where they grow sugar cane in Louisiana her whole life, but she really just wants to go north and see what the world is about.

It is 1870 and reconstruction is in full swing and things are changing, or so says Mr. Wills, owner of the plantation.  Sugar is secretly friends with his son, Billy, who tells her that his father has now hired some Chinese men to come and work on the plantation.  Even though he swears her to secrecy, word gets our and the older former slaves that Sugar lives with are afraid they will be out of a job and their homes, ramshackle shacks though they are.

Sugar is excited when the Chinese workers arrive and is immediately drawn to the youngest of the group (who, although his age isn't given, thought thought was in his teens) who teaches right off the bat her to say hello in Chinese.  Although forbidden to go near them by Mister and Missus Beale, her unofficial grandparents, Sugar can't resist and pretty soon has managed to bring Chinese and African Americans together.

It is Mr. Will's hope that his son will on day take over the plantation and so Billy decides to work in the fields to start learning about sugar cane production.  And when his mother brings out lemonade and ham stuffed biscuits, the Overseer gets angry because Billy is slowing down production.  He and Mr. Wills exchange some heated words and the Overseer is fired.  He leaves, vowing revenge.

Times are indeed changing and when the Overseer takes his revenge, the result brings changes for everyone though not what might be expected.

Narrated in the first person by Sugar, she is a sweet, engaging, funny, intelligent, spunky girl who has trouble obeying orders and has a curiosity as big as the world.  She wants to be a kid, to play and explore and pretend, but she had to work and that part of her story was hard to read.  And she has her own way of looking at things, all told in speech that is clipped in that way I have noticed kids who are always busy and think sometimes speak, almost telegraph style.

And I learned something new.  I knew that Chinese immigrants had arrived in this country in the late 1800s but I thought they had mostly settle on the west coast.  That they were hired for plantation work after the Civil War and Emancipation was very new to me, but as Sugar tells out, many former slaves went north and workers were needed.

Mr. Will isn't by any means the kindest man in the world, but he does represent those plantation owners (and others) who recognized that things had change and would continue to change.  He was the forward looking foil to the Overseer's backward looking character.

Jewell Parker Rhodes, who also wrote the wonderful Ninth Ward, really knows how to convey hard, back-breaking work under a burning sun as well as the piteously poor living conditions that former slaves found themselves in.  Freedom clearly does not mean better living conditions.  The former slaves were really now working for very little money - hence the Great Migration north.  On the other hand, Rhodes can convey the feeling of joy and sense of freedom that flying the first kite Sugar had ever seen brought gave her.

On the whole, Sugar is just the kind of book I would have read and loved when I was around 10-11 years old.  BUT...there were some things in the book I find hard to believe as an adult and truly wonder what my 10 year old self would have thought about them.  And I would be curious to know how others feel about them.

The one word that kept playing around in my head while I was reading Sugar was fanciful.  But in a good way for young readers.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from a friend

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