Slavery has technically ended, but 10-year-old Sugar is not free to be a child. Her mother, who worked in the fields, has died, and her father was sold away before slavery ended and has not been seen or heard of since. Sugar knows firsthand that the business of harvesting cane is far from sweet: “Cane is all I know. Cutting, cracking, carrying pieces of cane. … I hate, hate, hate sugar.”
The endearing, intelligent child has no relatives left, but the Beales, a kind elderly couple, look after her. She loves listening to Mr. Beale tell humorous old African folktales featuring tricky Brer Rabbit, who survives by his wits and his speed. The Beales are two of the former slaves who have stayed at Mr. Wills’ sugar plantation on River Road, along the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Now they get paid, but, as Sugar observes, “Dollars won’t last long. After we buy cloth, seeds, lamp oil, and chicken feed, we’ll be just as poor as when we were slaves.” No wonder so many, including the Beales’ own grown children, have left in hopes of creating a better life in the North.
The changes keep coming, though, and the former slaves who work for Mr. Wills fear the Chinese men he brings in to work alongside them. With her usual curiosity and warm heart, Sugar befriends the Chinese workers and in time, helps the others see they have more in common with the immigrants than they ever would have imagined.
Not only that, Sugar and Billy, the owner’s sweet son, become dear friends, despite the rules society devised to keep them apart. While at first it appears the grownups will succeed in separating the two, illness intervenes. Sugar insists on remaining at his side, and his parents begin to treat Sugar and the others more humanely.
The threat of violence persists, though, even after Mr. Wills fires his cruel, racist overseer, a man who will wreak vengeance upon those who remain on the land from which he’s been banished.
Rhodes, the author of Ninth Ward, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and a Jane Addams Peace Association Honor Book, has created a touching portrait of a spirited child growing up during Reconstruction, trying to find her way to a more fulfilling life. With its natural-sounding dialogue, appealing protagonist, and lively plot, this novel is superbly suited for reading aloud or for using in literature circles. It’s a great choice for nurturing discussions on Reconstruction, the nature of friendship, and the inevitability of change. Recommended for grades 4 through 6.