While Dan was soaking up the California sunshine, I’ve been worrying about the weather. I worried that, despite the city’s best efforts, we would run out of salt and the roads would be an icy-hot mess. I worried about all of you lovely blog readers, traveling to work, school, and everywhere else you needed to be. I got a little ahead of myself and worried that the March heating bill would be just as ridiculous as the February one was, and I worried that poor Suzy might start crying again. So of course I dealt with my anxieties by escaping into fictional people’s problems.
In many ways it is not fair to compare the much harsher struggles characters in a novel often face to the relatively minor issues in real life (I mean, it’s winter in Pittsburgh: how long have I lived here?). However, if a novel can lift you out of your everyday life and raise your consciousness of other people’s perspectives, that can only be a good thing. Bonus points if the book is a) extremely well-written, and b) set in a warm place.
This brings us to Natalie Baszile’s debut novel, Queen Sugar. Seventeen chapters in, I’m pretty much oblivious to anything going on outside my window, and am fully engaged by Charley–short for Charlotte–Bordelon and her struggle to make a go of her late father’s sugarcane farm.
Charley thought she’d inherit a little money when her father died–not a farm. And she’s not quite sure just what she’s going to do with 800 acres of land and a crop she knows nothing about. But she does know that the series of losses and griefs that plagued her in Los Angeles can only be cured by a fresh start far away. Micah, Charley’s daughter, feels differently, and the ensuing mother-daughter clashes are ones to which parents of teens will be able to relate.
Enter Ralph Angel, Charley’s half-brother, and his son Blue. Plagued with problems of their own, they too have fled their lives and returned home to Louisiana. Ralph Angel has always been jealous of Charley, and being cut out of his father’s will has not helped matters. Living together uneasily under their grandmother’s roof, they must sort out their feelings about each other while Charley scrambles to find someone, anyone, to teach her about sugarcane farming, so she won’t lose this year’s crop to neglect.
Baszile’s narrative style is rich in description, rooted firmly in the concrete sights and sounds of Louisiana and the community where her characters live. You can easily imagine yourself there, especially in the many outdoor scenes that reveal the beauty of the natural environment. There is, too, the ugliness of poverty, the icy chill of strained racial relations, the difficulty of a life in farming. Plot-wise, the narrative slowly unwinds like thread from a skein, showing the reader gradually just how much these characters have endured and lost, and what obstacles prevent them from coming back together again. The pace, however, is brisk, with short, engaging chapters that make it easy to keep reading “just one more” (Bedtime? What’s that?). Readers who liked Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season will find much to love here plot-wise and style-wise, albeit with more warmth.
Best of all, Baszile’s novel brought me back to the real world with heightened awareness of a way of life I’d never contemplated before now. A work of good fiction that also sent me on a quest to learn more about sugarcane farming? A former fiction / current reference librarian’s dream come true. Baszile clearly did her homework for this book, and her gift for sentence structure allows her to weave the technical details into her narrative in a way that’s curiosity-provoking. I will probably be much more likely to seek out books and information on this topic, which, to my mind, is the ultimate job of a work of fiction: to pave a relationship between imagination and reality.
All my worries were for nothing. The oncoming stormageddon turned out to be just another late-winter squall. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and I have a terrific book to finish. If you’d like to escape the last remnants of rotten weather without disconnecting entirely from real life, you should definitely meet Charley Bordelon and her family, compliments of a first-rate new novelist.