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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Friday, September 9, 2016

Queen Sugar--Read the Book, Skip the Series

Queen SugarQueen Sugar by Natalie Baszile
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Each winter I stop into my favorite Louisiana book shop, Books Along the Teche, in New Iberia and pick up my Robicheaux fix for the year. I always ask " what's new?" in either local authors or in books set in Louisiana. In January 2015, Queen Sugar was pressed into my hands and the owner said if you want to know about the cane business this is the book for you. I had told her how we drove around the back roads looking at the cane fields, this in February and March, and the mills. I'd seen the old Steen works and wondered just how this crop was grown and processed so without further ado, the Queen came home with me to Vermont.
She found herself in a pile of books and became buried until I happened to see the TV promo about a new series on OWN and I said to myself, you've got to read that book before you watch. What story it is!

California born and bred Charley Bordelon's father, Ernest, has just died. He left Louisiana as a teen and made his fortune in California where he chose to be buried Other than sporadic visits to his family and young son from a relationship with his high school girlfriend, Ernest has made his home in California, Once he'd married and they had Charlotte his visits became even more sporadic. After the old girlfriend died he brought his son, Ralph Angel, to live with his new family but Ralph Angel didn't fit in so he was sent back to grow up with his grandmother, Miss Honey in Saint Josephine. At the reading of Ernest's will Charley learns that he has left her 800 acres of cane fields in Louisiana. No money, just land, and the condition that she go and make the crop successful the land
goes to charity. Divorced with an eleven year old daughter Charley decides to give up her life in Los Angeles, leave her affluent mother, Lorna, behind and make a new start in Louisiana, a place she barely remembers from childhood visits.

The book opens with Charley and her daughter, Micah, driving cross country. Charley nervous but excited, too, at the prospect of what lies ahead; Micah furious that she has to leave her grandmother, friends and school behind. Within the first chapter, which takes place in June, Charley arrives at Miss Honey's, encounters the first unruly white boys somehow threatening in a pick up truck and sees her cane fields when meeting the foreman she hired by phone, Frasier, the foreman, informs her he has taken a job elsewhere, the fields are way behind if she wants to get a crop to the mill come Fall and she is no equipment that is in operating condition!

In the second chapter we meet Ralph Angel, who lives in Phoenix Arizona with his own four year old son, Blue. Ralph Angel, a junkie, has lost his job and his home and is driving a Chevy Impala that he rented and has failed to return. Broke, he buys two bottles of water and steals junk food for himself and Blue. He's thinking they will move to Montana because he's seen a picture of a father and son fishing in Montana and he believes that he and Blue will be able to have that sort of life if they go there, too. But after getting caught shoplifting and running away in the car he decides that perhaps, after all , it might be better for them if they headed to St Josephine and Miss Honey, who called and told him of Charley's good fortune. She thinks that he could work the cane business with his sister.

The stage set the story unfolds. There is no doubt that I now know how cane is grown and what natural disasters can befall this agricultural enterprise. As Charley struggles to find the equipment and manpower to bring in a profitable crop her life fills with family members and fellow farmers. In the process she learns of her roots and the reality of the modern South. She encounters sexism and racism, handles them both, but discovers that there are just as many examples of equality and common goals. She grows closer to her daughter who is surrounded by a huge family of loving and caring people.
In Ralph Angel we see a lost soul who despite the love and protection of Miss Honey cannot overcome the rejection of a father who built a life without him or of a mother who was so fragile she took her own life. No matter what he does, it all goes wrong--the man just can't catch a break and it is heart-rending. I agonized for him and Blue throughout the story.

For all the hardships Charley faces, and there are many, somehow you knew that she was strong enough to manage and that she had good people--good in many ways, knowledgeable and supportive as well as big hearted and kind--to support her and that it would be okay whatever the outcome. Even if she had to sell the land and failed to bring in the crop, she would be fine and she would be happy with her new love, a white man named Remy. But with Ralph Angel, somehow that was not going to be the case.

Written month by month, the stories of these two, their children and others in the cast spun out against the backdrop of growing and harvesting sugar cane. I watched the first half hour of the OWN series and quickly moved on to another program--there was too much elaboration that did not exist in the book and was not important to the central story--it was a dilution of the power of the written word. Don't bother!

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