Reviewed by Elizabeth Gabriel
Queens Sugar is a relaxing, enjoyable, and also heartbreaking story of a family and a sugar cane farm in Louisiana. The main character, Charley Bordelon, is a widowed single mother, who moves from Los Angeles back to her tiny hometown, Saint
Josephine, Louisiana with her daughter, Micah, after her father left her his 800-acre sugarcane farm in a trust. Saint Josephine is the kind of southern town that feels stuck in the past, where people grow up and never leave its borders, where the bartenders know directions to everybody’s house, and where you need to be cautious if you’re a black man driving the roads at night.
Baszile seamlessly integrates a story of this Southern family with a story of running a farm and creating a relationship with the land. Each main character, most of whom are Charley’s family members, is a pleasure to get to know, each depicting a Southern charm and kindness that warms one’s heart. Violet, the beautiful cousin who is married to a Reverend, is spunky and direct, and Charley’s biggest fan. Miss Honey, the grandmother who opens her home to Charley and Micah, quotes scripturein her daily conversation and shows her love for people by cooking pork chops, pies, and cookies. Hollywood, another cousin, who is happy to spend his days mowing lawns and cleaning people’s yards, looks out for Charley from the moment she arrives. You learn that each one suffered tremendous pain and loss in their life and it leaves you wishing you could hug each of them and sit with them on the porch swing, in silence, listening to the sound of the cicadas.
As I get to know Charley, it’s easy to feel a kin- ship to her – to her struggles as a woman farming in a man’s world, to the tremendous learning curve she faces to understand soil, cane varieties, tractor mechanics and everything else a farmer needs to know, and to her exhaustion as she tries to balance her new life as a farmer with her dedication to being a mother.
What’s impossible for me to relate to is her experience as a black woman farmer in the South. She’s verbally abused at the tractor auction by another farmer. After she loses most of her crop in a hurricane, she’s denied loan after loan from all the banks within 100 miles. When her brother goes missing, Miss Honey worries he’ll be shot if they call the police to help find him. While the book is fiction, sadly, this part of the story line is nonfiction.
What I enjoyed most about Queens Sugar are the detailed portrayals of how Charley learns the insand outs of running the farm. Denton, who Charley hires to manage the farm, teaches matter-of-factly; you “give the cane your final Amen” and then you “stand back and let Mother Nature take over”, he tells Charley. He has her taste the soil to learn about its mineral contents, he shows her which plants are the “tie vines” (morning glory), which will tie up the cane and keep it from growing, and he shows her how to identify if the cane has borers “which take the sucrose from the inside” and can ruin the whole crop. We learn from Denton that in the 1800s, farmers named their fields after their daughters – a tradition that warms any parent’s soul – and Charley promptly names her backfield “Micah’s corner”.
While Queens Sugar has intense moments of devastation, overall, I found it uplifting and beautiful.
It was a quick read, because with each passing page that didn’t talk about the farm, I kept wanting to continue to find out if she saves the cane crop, if she lets her brother work with her, or if she is forced to sell the farm to the cane coop all the small farmers despise.
Elizabeth is the editor of The Natural Farmer and co-owns Wellspring Forest Farm in upstate NY.