Imagine staring at enormous fields of wilting sugar cane stalks and knowing your entire future depends on whether you can keep this crop alive. Single mother Charley faces this challenge after moving from California to a substantial farm in Saint Josephine, southern Louisiana which she’s inherited from her recently deceased father. She must rapidly learn the back-breaking business of harvesting sugar cane from scratch before her money and time run out or she’ll be destitute. The transition from the highly-mixed urban landscape of Los Angeles to this rural Southern town couldn’t be more dramatic. Not only must she adjust to a new livelihood with her adolescent girl Micah in tow but learn how to integrate into this different culture which is very parochial and stuck in its ways. Charley is both helped and hindered by the family who surround her as she struggles through a difficult year of re-establishing the farm as a viable business. “Queen Sugar” is a heart-felt novel primarily about overcoming painful guilt and accepting that forgiveness can open new opportunities for the future.
Running parallel to Charley’s narrative is the story of her half-brother Ralph Angel. He is also a single parent who arrives in Louisiana soon after Charley, but hasn’t been included in his father’s will. Since he’s nearly broke he resorts to shop lifting at times to even feed himself and his six year old son, Blue. Ralph Angel struggles with his pride, drug-use and resentment over being cut out of any inheritance; he’s what could be called the black sheep of the family. However, being the favoured child isn’t always positive. Charley feels the legacy she’s taken on is more often a curse than a blessing and she’s bewildered why her father traded his life savings for this remote farmland. Only when she learns the truth about her father’s youth in this rural Southern town does she understand what the farm really meant to him. By securing the business she can establish her and her family’s future. Also as a black woman, she can set an important precedent in a predominantly white male farming industry. Charley acknowledges that “you don’t move to a tiny Louisiana town, way out in the middle of nowhere, and expect life to be a stroll through the park; you couldn’t expect to be the only woman in an industry filled with men and not think someone would eventually say something stupid; you couldn’t ignore the long, dark, tortured history of Southern race relations, or pretend that everything would be fixed overnight… But you could be brave.” Demonstrating courage, tenacity and drawing upon the support of her family, Charley is determined to overcome the substantial challenges she faces in this town. However, farming is expensive and it all comes down to money.
The novel shows a complicated and dynamic portrait of racial politics. Outwardly ignorant demonstrations of racism don’t often appear, although it is still sometimes present especially amongst the established elite. However, there are more subtle layers which manifest in subsets of mixed race communities, within romantic relationships and amongst the presumptions of workers – there are migrant workers who’d be treated better by black employers but would prefer to work for white employers. This novel is unique in the way it shows how boundaries can be broken down by circumnavigating destructive conflict through patience and intelligently correcting the missteps people make when talking about race.
Natalie Baszile has a highly engaging fluid style of writing which sympathetically draws you into the lives of her characters. Through glimpsing their thoughts and reading their dialogue characters such as the deeply Christian grandmother Miss Honey come alive and feel like familiar family. Adolescent Micah’s personality is revealed more through her impetuous actions in a way which feels very realistic. While this novel shows a highly informed level of detail about the process of sugar caning, it’s not so much that the reader feels overwhelmed like they are reading a farming text book. At the centre of the book is a potent symbol: a small statue called The Cane Cutter which Charley has also inherited from her father. It’s emblematic of where her family came from, their determination to persevere and where they are going. It’s a way of acknowledging the past, learning from it and moving forward in a more fulfilling way. I admire the realistic way this novel deals with the real world problem of how money seems to rule our lives, but acknowledges that it is definitely not everything. Baszile writes: “there was so much more to life than just money. There were family and friends, there was good, satisfying work, and knowing you had a place on this earth where you were loved and there was nothing to prove.” Despite seemingly insurmountable challenges and difficulties that arise within communities and families, establishing a home should be the centrepiece and the greatest goal we can aspire to fully attain.