Written by Rachel Walman
For millions of emancipated people who had suffered under slavery, the end of the American Civil War was a new beginning. But how new, how different, was life for formerly enslaved people? In her remarkable middle-grade novel Sugar, Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes takes us to the American South during the Reconstruction Era, the years immediately following the Civil War, to explore how life on a sugar plantation changed—or stayed the same—for one African-American community. Our Reading into History Family Book Club is meeting this Sunday with Dr. Rhodes as our special guest to discuss the book and explore artifacts in our library related to her book.
In Dr. Rhodes’s novel, readers are transported to the year 1870, when we meet a ten-year-old girl named Sugar still living on the Louisiana sugar plantation where she was once enslaved. Things change for black residents of the fictional River Road Plantation when a group of Chinese laborers are brought in to help with the sugar harvest. Fear of newcomers and potential job loss sets in. But Sugar’s spirit and zest for life inspires her to bring communities together. We can’t imagine a story more fitting for our times than this one, and we’re so excited to explore it with families this Sunday.
We interviewed Dr. Rhodes about Sugar to inspire everyone to attend this weekend’s meeting. Think of questions you want to ask Dr. Rhodes and feelings you want to share with other readers about this book—and prepare to be amazed by some of the rarely seen artifacts we’ll be looking at from our library collections. Excited? Then we’ll see you Sunday!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Why did you decide to set the novel Sugar on a Southern plantation in the 1870s, just after slavery officially ended?
Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes: The ideas for my books tend to come half though a general curiosity about the subject matter and half though the voices of the characters as I discover them. In the case of Sugar, I got interested in the setting through Lucy Cohen’s book Chinese in the Post-Civil War South: A People Without a History. I’d been teaching at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, for some time, and the book got me thinking about Chinese immigrants and African Americans working side by side. Then, one day while I was doing the dishes, the image of a little girl came to me almost as though I could see her standing in front of me, hands on her hips, saying, “How come I have to work? How come I can’t play?”
DCHM: Not a lot of people know about the presence of Chinese laborers on American plantations in the late 19th century. What compelled you to write about this history for a young audience?
DrJPR: Sugar covers a chapter of American history that usually doesn’t appear much in a middle school curriculum. Kids learn plenty about slavery, but they never hear about the hardships that follow it in the South, and they generally never learn about the Chinese workers at all. My goal wasn’t just to introduce children to this period but to tell them a story that allows them to empathize with the people of that era in a tangible way—not to just learn history but see it come alive.
DCHM: What primary source material did you explore while researching for this book? Were there any images or documents in particular that inspired you or changed the way you thought about this history?
DrJPR: When I visited the Laura Plantation, they had a haunting photo of a slave girl who inspired me. She had such a fierce light in her eyes. Also, visiting an actual sugar cane plantation, I gained knowledge about how the domestic and work lives fit together. I also got to feel the claustrophobia of the slave shacks and witness the slaves’ construction talents on the “big house.” Not a single nail was used!
I discovered, too, that Br’er Rabbit stories were told at Laura Plantation in French and Creole long before Joel Chandler Harris’ more famous English translation from Georgia. More than anything I learned how stories could become an act of resistance, community, and survival. Interestingly enough, the tour guides vehemently insisted that Chinese workers were never used for sugar harvesting.
DCHM: You end your author’s note by saying that your three young protagonists Sugar, Billy, and Beau “represent the best of America.” Tell us more about what that means to you and what kids today can learn from their examples.
DrJPR: Fundamentally, I try to capture the same spirit with all my middle grade heroes: the belief that human kindness can transcend boundaries of race, class, age, and circumstance. Today’s youth are growing up in a tense, often terrifying, political climate, but I hope that characters like Sugar, Billy, and Beau can demonstrate the value of looking to love, rather than fear, to guide our actions.
DCHM: What would Sugar, your novel’s namesake and main character, be doing if she were a kid today? What would her life be like and what issues or causes would be important to her?
DrJPR: It’s easy for me to imagine little Sugar marching in a Black Lives Matter protest. I think Sugar would love going to classes at a real school, even if she might have a hard time staying focused. Also, Sugar has a passion for cooking, but she has such limited ingredients to work with on the plantation. Maybe if she lived today, she’d grow up to be a chef—perhaps at a soul food-Asian fusion restaurant!
DCHM: What three words best describe Sugar?
DrJPR: Courageous, passionate, and spunky!