Queen Sugar refers to sugarcane, and this sugarcane is at the heart of Charley Bordelon’s story. A farmer’s life hasn’t really changed through the years. In spite of hard work and new equipment and innovations, the crop is largely at the mercy of the elements. Not to mention local politics and prejudices. In Queen Sugar, you will read about the trials and tribulations of one particular farmer, a single woman who has much more against her than gender prejudice.
Charley Bordelon is a widow who has lived in California all her life. She has barely started to live after overcoming the shock and grief of widowhood. She inherits a sugarcane farm instead of local real estate and has no option but to hotfoot it to rural Louisiana, with her ten year old daughter in tow. She is taken in by her grandmother, and the long uphill struggle begins. First, her farm manager ditches her. She is faced with sugar cane going waste and scrambles to find good workers.
As summer worsens, Charley has to work hard from morning to night, trying to get the land in order. There is new cane to be planted, old crops to be tended to, bad machinery and a host of other problems that Charley faces. Her daughter finds it hard to settle down. And then there is her half brother. Ralph Angel has always felt wronged. When he doesn’t inherit anything from their father, he blames Charley. He is on the run and turns up at their grandmother’s house with his child in tow. All the family warns Charley against trusting him. And Charley has her own misgivings based on some bad childhood memories.
Ralph Angel urges Charley to give him some work but he doesn’t know how dire her situation really is. This leads to greater animosity between the siblings and Ralph is bent on revenge. Amidst all this, Charley finds a friend in her aunt and an enthusiastic young farmer who wants to court her.
Queen Sugar paints a cane farmer’s life in excruciating detail. At least this is not as gory as reading about cows! There is a lot of history of the Louisiana region woven in, with something about the Creoles and the Africans (African American) who worked as slaves for generations. History lesson apart, Queen Sugar has a strong plot and a lot of complex characters. Ten year old Micah who is insecure about her future, the hardy Miss Honey who guards a terrible secret and who will do anything for family, even for the black sheep of the family, Charley herself who is an art graduate but rolls up her sleeves and plunges her hands in the mud, and an old weary man who comes out of retirement just to help Charley, all add to the mix.
Queen Sugar is about cane that has a strong history across the world,whether it is Australia or South Africa or the glorious American South. And it is about the lives it shapes and tears it draws before relenting enough to yield a sweet crop.
Natalie Baszile has delivered a book you must read, and savor for years to come.