Brief Description: 10 yo African American girl, former slave, still works on plantation, alongside newly arrived Chinese Americans. Illustrates difficult life for African Americans after Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation.
Date Range: 1870-1871
Original Publication: 2013
Suitable for Grades: 3-7th
Target Audience: Middle Grade
Ten-year-old Sugar is an ornery and adventurous African American girl who hates everything about sugar, including her own name. As an orphan, she is cared for by an elderly formerly enslaved couple, who along with a handful of others work the cane fields for their former owner for a pittance in compensation. In Reconstruction era Louisiana, this small group is all that is left of the former slaves; the young, strong and healthy people have moved north looking for better opportunity. Sugar doesn’t feel free. She works hard in the fields alongside the adults and laments the unfairness of her life.
Sugar is only one of two children on the entire plantation; the other is the white son of the plantation owner. Nevertheless, they befriend each other, as young Billy seems especially (and maybe unrealistically) open-minded regarding racial relations. Their adventures together relieve Sugar from the tedium of her work, and she becomes increasingly reluctant to do her chores, much to the annoyance of her caretakers. Also annoyed is the racist plantation owner and his wife, as they are far less willing than their son to face the realities of the new South.
When a group of Chinese immigrant men are brought in to replace the former slaves, they are also treated badly. The earnest and hardworking Chinese men work very fast through row after row of cane, presenting a real threat to the black employees, who worry that they will be displaced. But Sugar, who is fascinated with the Chinese, bravely brings everyone together. This is a hopeful book with a sweet resolution as the resilient Sugar and her new friends face their futures.
This book demonstrates that the economics of Reconstruction Era daily life for newly freed African American plantation workers did not change much. After working the same long hours under the same conditions, overseen by the same cruel man, they are paid for their labor once a year at the end of the harvest season. Wages are quickly depleted buying supplies from the plantation owner. They live in the same rustic sheds, sleep on the same dirt floor, and eat the same paltry foods as before the emancipation.
Also interesting to contemplate, but not addressed in this book: what was happening in China that young, able-bodied men were willing to put up with such treatment in America? The author describes many details about the sugar industry: the planting, the harvesting, and the processing. Back matter includes an author’s note describing her inspiration for the story and some information about the history of the African Br’er Rabbit tales, which feature prominently here. This book is part of a the author’s Louisiana Girls Trilogy, about three unrelated girls in different time periods. A teaching guide is available from the author’s website: jewellparkerrhodes.com