This Week I'm Reading: Queen Sugar

I liked Natalie Baszile’s book Queen Sugar a lot. I liked the way it deftly folded together two archetypal stories, the woman finding herself and the farmer battling the elements. I liked the setting of rural Louisiana, which was refreshingly unsentimental, from the point of someone who knows it inside out. I even liked the post-racial love story, which would have been impossible in rural Louisiana not long ago. But the part I liked best was something that many readers complained about, because it bored them so much. It was the meticulous treatment of the technicalities of contemporary sugar cultivation.

I wrote a lot about 19th-century cotton cultivation in my own book, and I admire anyone who can successfully intertwine love and self-realization with capital investment in irrigation and machinery. The book had plenty of drama about a farmer’s success, but I was intrigued to discover that growing cane and harvesting sugar is now as prosaic as growing and harvesting corn in Iowa.

I’m a historian, so I think a lot about context, even when it isn’t directly relevant. Queen Sugar made me think about the long story of sugar, which is a bitter one. In the West Indies, where sugar was first grown in the late 17th and 18th centuries, sugar made white men rich, but it ate black men alive. In its earliest years, sugar was so profitable a crop that it was cheaper to work slaves to death and replenish the labor force by purchasing new ones. No other crop in the New World—not rice, not indigo, not tobacco, and not cotton—was so brutal.

The sugar economies of the West Indies were places that were constantly refreshed by Africa. They were the most African places in the New World, culturally speaking, in their language, their cuisine, and their religion. They also produced the bloodiest uprisings against slavery anywhere in the hemisphere. The most successful of these, in San Domingue (which later became part of Haiti), cast a long shadow over slavery in the United States.  Many slave owners from San Domingue settled in South Carolina, where their memories—and their nightmares—dominated the discussion about slavery and later in the 19th century, about secession.

All farmers are bound by debt and by the weather. Charley Bordelon, the heroine of Queen Sugar, chooses to be bound by sugar, and it strengthens her. It was a relief to learn that today, sugar has finally exorcised the terrible ghosts of slavery.