By Jewell Parker Rhodes
Published 2013 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
The only life Sugar has known is on River Road Plantation. She is not a slave (Mr. Lincoln freed all the slaves when Sugar was younger), but she has nowhere else to go. Sugar tries to find her own sense of freedom, including befriending the son of the plantation owner. When he tells Sugar a secret - that his father is bringing in Chinese to work the fields - she begins to worry. How will life change on River Road?
Add this to the list of e-galleys I requested in my efforts for more middle-grade. Rhodes' first novel for children, Ninth Ward, was very well-received. It definitely caught my eye, but I haven't yet found the time to read it. When I spotted her newest available to request, I did so. It sounded like it had a lot of potential - as you know by now, I'm a big fan of historical fiction, and I like that this focuses on the time period almost immediately after slavery is abolished. Rhodes tells a fascinating and new-to-me story, of plantation owners hiring Chinese workers to supplement their workforce as slaves left for the North.
It seems odd to me to say I really enjoyed this novel, as it's not a terribly happy one (though it does certainly have an uplifting message and happy ending). But I truly did enjoy this novel. It's compulsively readable - told in a free-form style with short chapters, the pages fly by. If you've ever lacked for a spunky heroine, look no more - Sugar has spunk to spare. At times, Sugar's stubbornness can seem a bit much, but it also seems very much a product of her childhood. I love all the nuance that Rhodes has created for her character - her uneasiness with her own name is incredibly interesting and her love of stories is a more universal trait. As I mentioned, the message of this book is uplifting, as Sugar knows in her heart that it is perfectly fine for her to befriend Billy (even though he's white) and Beau (even though he's Chinese). This was the novel's weakest point, however; I'm not sure how entirely realistic it is. Yes, I appreciate Sugar's spunk, but would she have really thrived like this during this time period? Additionally, everything works out for everyone in the end, which is perhaps unrealistic and a bit too convenient. However, I thought this was a very well-written historical fiction piece, featuring a wonderful heroine.
Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.