Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sugar - Jewell Parker Rhodes

Title: Sugar
Author: Jewell Parker Rhodes
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: July 28, 2013
Finished: July 29, 2013

From the inside cover:

For Sugar, life is anything but sweet.

Ten-year-old Sugar lives on River Road Plantation along the banks of the Mississippi River. Slavery is over, but working in the sugarcane fields all day doesn't make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar knows how to make her own fun: telling stories, climbing trees, and playing with her forbidden friend Billy, the plantation owner's son.

Then a group of Chinese workers arrive to help harvest the cane.  Sugar wants to know everything about them-she loves the way they dress, their unfamiliar language, and, best of all, the stories they tell of dragons and emperors. Unfortunately, other folks on the plantation feel differently-they're fearful of these new neighbours and threatened by their different customs. Sugar knows things will only get better if everyone works together, so she sets out to help the two communities realize they're not so different after all.

Sugar is the inspiring story of a strong, spirited young girl who grows beyond her circumstances and helps others work toward a brighter future.

I picked this up purely for the unique subject matter. I haven't seen too many novels set in the time directly after the Civil War and the end of slavery, and the addition of the Chinese workers as competition was interesting as well.

Sugar was born into slavery on a Louisiana plantation, and her father was sold shortly after. Ten years later in 1870, slavery has ended, her mother has since died, and Sugar feels trapped in the midst of many of the workers leaving to go north but having no one willing to take her. With mainly elderly workers remaining, the owner decides to bring in Chinese workers from British Guyana to help bring in a more plentiful crop. Everyone is justifiably worried that the new workers will put them out of the only  'jobs' they've ever known, and are immediately on their guard. Sugar, on the other hand, yearns for something beyond life on the plantation and is immediately drawn to the foreign workers.

I liked how the author showed that just because the former slaves were emancipated, things didn't get better for everyone immediately or even a couple of years later (or even a hundred years later). The workers were still illiterate, and even though they were free to go at any time and received pay for their work now, they were paid so little it took a while to save up enough to afford to leave, and they'd be going towards uncertain prospects too. People still treated them horribly (Sugar and the other workers were lucky to have a boss that wanted them willing), and for many children left orphaned, their outlooks were especially bleak.

The book is a quick read, but a good one. Sugar is spunky and fiery, and her narration and voice suck readers in quickly. The bond formed between Billy, Sugar, and Beau is really sweet and inspiring and a good role model for kids to look up to....I'm not sure how realistic it would've been in terms of the historical context, but it's awesome anyway.

Excellent children's book about the Reconstruction period in American history, complete with a great female protagonist and wonderful messages.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Sugar is drawn flying the Chinese kite away from the plantation and the sugarcane, it's a nice visual metaphor.

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