Queen Sugar

This excellent novel by Natalie Baszile follows a brother and sister, scattered across the country, who return to farm Louisiana sugar cane after their father passes away. He leaves the farm to his younger daughter, due to some issues with his older son, which sets the context for much of the drama in the story. It is a story about the difficulties of farming, the simple beauties in nature and life, and raising young children, all filtered through an African-American family that deals with racism and systemic barriers that make life even harder. It’s a great book and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested.

The story follows Charley (short for Charlotte), who grew up in California with her father, and Ralph Angel, who grew up with his mother in Louisiana and moved to Arizona as an adult. Their father had built up a bit of wealth, and purchased a sugar cane farm near his hometown in Louisiana before passing away. Each had been widowed, so they separately made their ways back when their grandmother beckoned. The farm was left to Charley, the primary character, and she brought her 11-year old daughter. Ralph Angel brought his 6-year old son Blue with him in a rental car that he never returned. She had been doing well in California, and dove right into farming land that her father had worked on as a child. Luck brought her in touch with a couple of experienced farmers, and she learned a lot. Her brother resented her father giving the entire farm to her, however, and had trouble holding down a job. Ultimately, she makes it to grinding season, while he loses it and runs away, ultimately falling victim to a police man’s gun.

The story is engaging and interesting, and has a lot of interesting details surrounding how sugar cane is cultivated. The most perspective-altering insights, however, came to me through family details or plot twists that seemed disappointing but inevitable — most of which were based on race. Having recently read a couple Ta-Nahisi Coates books, I am beginning to grasp how omnipresent structural racism is in America (I’ve partially known about it, but am really opening my eyes to the vastness of its grip). For example, most of the farmers in the region are black, however most of the landowners are white. Many farm for decades, but never have insurance, retirement accounts, or anything to grow their net worth. Both main characters lost spouses — hers to a holdup, his to a disease. The matriarch refused to call police when Ralph Angel stole something from Charley, knowing that it could only end poorly; they shot him during a regular traffic stop. The daughter watching a town parade celebrating the “Queen Sugar” and seeing all the nominees are white. The pain of having attended college but not graduated, and that failure haunting him the rest of his life. Charley dating a white man and him ‘complimenting’ her by saying she’s hardly black at all. A cousin working at a correctional facility, tying in the fact that prison is sadly never that far removed from a black family. A few of these obstacles stand in front of white families, but many of us have structures in place to help us around them. When challenges keep mounting, it’s not hard to imagine stumbling and finding it difficult to overcome. I appreciate reading this book and recognizing the tremendous blessings in my life.

It was also an allegory of a prodigal daughter, returning to her father’s roots and learning to care for the land. There are beautiful scenes depicting the land, describing the skies, and illuminating the sounds of nature. These are natural beauties that we in cities hardly ever see, and hearken back to a simpler lifestyle. My big takeaway is to embrace family, appreciate all that we have, and to make a little extra effort to get back in touch with the natural beauty surrounding us (especially outside the city limits). It was enjoyable as an audiobook, and expect that the book would be a page-turner as well.