Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile may tell a story of familiar themes, but the upfront way that Baszile addresses issues of family, race, social class, faith and more makes for a vital and moving novel that works on levels so much deeper than plot.
Speaking of plot: when we meet Charley Bordelon, the primary narrator of Queen Sugar, we learn that she has recently inherited an 800 acre sugarcane farm that she had no idea even existed until her father’s will named her its owner. Now Charley and her daughter Micah are travelling from the home they’ve always known in Los Angeles to the farmlands of Louisiana to harvest sugarcane. Charley and eleven-year-old Micah getting to Louisiana without strangling each other by way of typical mother-daughter effrontery is only the beginning of a long struggle that both women will endure throughout the course of the novel.
Not only is Charley a city girl trying to take up a farmer’s role, but she is also a woman in a man’s world and perhaps most at the forefront of Charley’s mind and the novel, she is an African American in a still racist state. This is a place where black and white, male and female, poor and rich are major distinctions for the Californian mother and daughter. Hence, recurring themes of incessant and seemingly inherent masochism, racism and social class issues play deep seeded roles in the novel as Charley navigates her way through the very new territory of Louisiana’s Deep South.
Throw into the mix Ralph Angel, Charley’s drug abusing half-brother who seems to be good at only one thing: messing up every opportunity given to him, and you’ve got the perfect fixings for a catastrophe. Ralph Angel though is one of the most intriguing and tragic characters of the novel. His story, that of a struggling African American who never makes it out of the drudgery he’s born into, is one of the most important Baszile intends to tell.
Queen Sugar is a stark and often affronting novel that cuts no corners and leaves no silences when it comes to taking a stand. That’s not to say that ambiguities aren’t recognized in the systems and norms that Bazsile confronts; rather, the issues themselves are brought to light in ways that complicate and force those who stand on either side to think differently about the matters at hand. Baszile challenges issues of race, gender and class that still plague us today with characters so alive and endearing it’s easy to think about what they would do or say in situations outside the pages of the text.
A richly complex novel burgeoning with social import and so beautifully composed you’ll feel you are walking in the Louisiana cane field with Charley, Queen Sugar is both tragic and uplifting in just the same way life itself can often be.
Published by Penguin Books in January 2015, you can find Queen Sugar at your local bookstore.
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FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from NetGalley for a fair and honest review of the text.