Queen Sugar

9780670026135Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile

publication date: 2014
pages: 372
ISBN: 978-0-670-02613-5

This engaging read followed Charley Bordelon as she uprooted her family from southern California to rural Louisiana to work on her dead father’s newly-discovered sugar cane farm. Charley left behind her job, her mother, and the trappings of her middle-class life. She took her 11-year-old daughter Micah, and not much else, with her to Louisiana to pursue her father’s unknown and mysterious urge to own and grow sugar cane.

Charley’s life in Louisiana was completely different from anything she knew before. She lived with her aunt who had no internet, no computer, no microwave. She worked in a field dominated by white men who had lived in that region all their lives. She was also reunited with an unfamiliar and volatile half-brother, Ralph Angel.

One of the finest aspects of the books was its creation of a sense of place. Rural Louisiana was not a place I have ever been or know much about. But, because of Baszile’s writing, I felt a little closer to that part of the world. For example, here was Charley’s first glimpse of her farm:

Dust billowed behind the Volvo until the path ended at a bank of trees. Woods stood tall and impassable to the left, but up ahead to the right sprawled open space. Charley’s heart raced as she imagined what was out there: fields so splendidly verdant she’d feel short of breath just looking at them. Her father left the door open and she had stepped through it.

Here’s another passage that highlighted Baszile’s ability to craft lively writing:

At last, Ralph Angel stood up and walked to his car. He laid his head on the wheel. He felt himself falling through the blanket of damp leaves and steamy humus; through the horizons of loam, through clay and bedrock, and finally, through the fire.

I really enjoyed the Ralph Angel storyline. Ralph Angel was a wayward son who just couldn’t seem to do anything right. He couldn’t hold a job, finish school, or acquire much of anything without stealing it. But the book explored Ralph Angel’s past and motivations and made him a sometimes sympathetic character.

In fact, Ralph Angel wasn’t the only character that Baszile cultivated and instilled with life and depth. Most characters, including those who were in only one scene, had names, families, dialects, motivations, and everything else needed to animate them.

There were some problems with the book. The writing could be cliché and unchallenging. This description, for example: “all of it with the spiny silhouette of the Sierra Nevada, like a promise, along the horizon.” Saying something is “like a promise” hardly ever makes sense. And this instance is no exception.

Although Queen Sugar didn’t really break any new ground, it was a captivating read with enough substance to feel worthwhile.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

Washington Independent Review of Books
Star Tribune
Oprah.com