BOOK REVIEW: 'Sugar' by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Terri Schlichenmeyer | 5/28/2014, 3 p.m.
c.2013, Little, Brown and Company
So much has happened since you started school last fall.
You’ve made new friends, first of all. You’ve learned new things, both in class and out. Maybe you’ve grown a couple inches, found a new talent, dreamed big, or mastered something challenging.
A lot can happen in a year, especially when everything else changes, too. In the book “Sugar” by Jewell Parker Rhodes, it happens even faster with history behind it to push.
More than anything, Sugar hated sugar.
It bit her face and fingers at harvest time, and made them bleed. Cutting left blisters on her hands. Sugar cane got in her hair and there was no escaping the smell of it. When Missus Beale made a meal with sugar, it turned Sugar’s stomach.
Sugar was sure there had to be a reason why Ma named her after that crop but there was no way of knowing, since Ma had died.
Much as she hated it, though, working with sugar cane was all that 10-year-old Sugar had ever known. She was born on River Road Plantation and that’s where she stayed – even though the end of the Civil War meant she could go anywhere. She stayed because her freedom meant that her Pa was free, too. She hoped he’d return to River Road.
In the meantime, Mister and Missus Beale took care of Sugar. Mister Beale told her stories of Br’er Rabbit, and he said he liked her “spunk.” Missus Beale tried to keep Sugar busy, but Sugar often wondered why she couldn’t play with Billy Wills, her friend and the son of River Road’s owner.
But that wouldn’t happen easily: her friendship with Billy worried Missus Beale. What’s more, everybody on River Road was concerned about the fact that Mister Wills was bringing Chinamen to the plantation to work. He’d decided that a handful of elderly ex-slaves couldn’t handle the harvest anymore – which might’ve meant that everyone would lose their jobs, although Sugar wasn’t sure if that was really true.
The Chinese seemed nice. They were eager to teach her about their culture and to learn hers. Still, with all the changes at River Road, wasn’t it better to convince the Beales that it was time to head north?
Without a doubt, your child has already learned something about the Civil War. She’s aware of what happened then – but what about what happened afterward?
“Sugar” tells some of the tale.
In her notes, author Jewell Parker Rhodes explains what she discovered and how she initially intended to write an adult book about the post-War years, until she envisioned a little girl who just wanted to be a kid.
Young readers will be glad she did: despite the uncertainty she feels about the changes that occurred, Sugar manages to keep a watchful, self-aware innocence mixed with joy. That brings this story beyond the dates-and-facts of history, and gives it a kid-friendly sense your 8 to 12 year old will like. As an end-of-school read, in fact, or to keep her occupied this summer, “Sugar” is a book she’ll fall for.