Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

imagesSugar is something sweet and we are all attracted to it.  The problem comes when you are forced to work in the sugar cane fields day in and day out. It soon becomes a bit overwhelming and not something you care about at all.   Now add to the aversion the fact that your name is Sugar and you have our main character in Jewell Parker Rhodes novel called Sugar.

Young Sugar lives with her fellow workers on the River Road Planation in 1870. Her father was sold off and her mother died just after the last growing season. Sugar is trying to make her way in a world that is hard to understand. Slavery has ended but the folks around her are still working the field of the plantation. They get little to no pay. They have learned you don’t get sick because you will lose your pay. There is no play for a 10 year old and no learning. And for sure you don’t talk to anyone who is not your kind—it is not a good idea. Sounds like slavery doesn’t it?

Rhodes takes us into the historical moments just after the slaves were “freed.”  She builds for us Sugar’s world and the needs of a young, energetic and curious child. Sugar seems to always be in trouble for not working enough, for running off to explore and for speaking with those she should not.

We follow this historical fiction into the time when blacks were not allowed to speak to, let alone be friends with, a white person. But now they have these new people called Chinamen who may be taking their jobs and Sugar is speaking to everyone. This is where trouble begins but also where bridges are built one smile at a time.

As a teacher, I find this book gives a bit of history that many of us have not thought about or shared with students. Rhodes gives us a different tale of slavery, but just as importantly she shows us the value of friendships and taking time to learn from those we perceive as different from ourselves.

This books is perfect for grades 4-8 to open a discussion of changing times and relationships. It gives us a chance to think about what we learn from history and how might we change our behavior even now to help build strong bonds with people who might look and sound different from ourselves.  My classroom had these same divides: “We don’t talk to those girls/boys. They are from (fill in a country or culture). We don’t know anything about them.”  It may be 2013, but learning to reach out, to understand and to work together as one is still a major goal in our classrooms.

Sugar is one great way to start that conversation.

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About Joanne Toft

I am a retired Minneapolis Public School teacher. I walk, garden, help in schools and write. Life is good!
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