Sugar: A Novel

Sugar: A Novel

4.6 95
by Bernice L. McFadden

View All Available Formats & Editions

"Strong and folksy storytelling...think Zora Neale Hurston...Sugar speaks of what is real." --The Dallas Morning News

From an exciting new voice in African-American contemporary fiction comes a novel Ebony praised for its "unforgettable images, unique characters, and moving story that keeps the pages turning until the end." The Chicago


"Strong and folksy storytelling...think Zora Neale Hurston...Sugar speaks of what is real." --The Dallas Morning News

From an exciting new voice in African-American contemporary fiction comes a novel Ebony praised for its "unforgettable images, unique characters, and moving story that keeps the pages turning until the end." The Chicago Defender calls Sugar "a literary explosion...McFadden reveals amazing talent." The novel opens when a young prostitute comes to Bigelow, Arkansas, to start over, far from her haunting past. Sugar moves next door to Pearl, who is still grieving for the daughter who was murdered fifteen years before. Over sweet-potato pie, an unlikely friendship begins, transforming both women's lives--and the life of an entire town.

Sugar brings a Southern African-American town vividly to life, with its flowering magnolia trees, lingering scents of jasmine and honeysuckle, and white picket fences that keep strangers out--but ignorance and superstition in. To read this novel is to take a journey through loss and suffering to a place of forgiveness, understanding, and grace.  McFadden is the author of the novels Gathering of Waters, Glorious, and This Bitter Earth

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With her eponymous anti-heroine, debut novelist McFadden breaks the mold of a venerable stereotype. Here, the hooker with a heart of gold is instead a hooker with a past so tarnished no amount of polishing can change her fate. As a baby, Sugar is abandoned by her mother and raised by a trio of prostitutes who run an Arkansas bordello. Turning tricks at age 12, and leaving town four years later to try her luck in St. Louis and then Detroit, brings more degradation, along with an ever-hardening heart. Upon her mother's death in 1955, Sugar is willed a modest home in Bigelow, Ark., but when she moves into town, and supports herself the only way she knows, the female population rises in wrath against her. All except Pearl, Sugar's next-door neighbor, who more than a decade ago lost her beloved daughter, Jude, to a vicious rapist/murderer. Pearl is struck by Sugar's uncanny likeness to Jude, and is determined to become Sugar's friend in spite of vocal disapproval. Although the two women are opposites in nearly every way, they bring out the best in each other: Sugar convinces Pearl to loosen up and accompany her to a Saturday night juke joint, and Sugar promises to go to church for two months of Sundays. Hypocritical gossip spreads among the townsfolk and tension grows when it turns out that nearly every married man in Bigelow pays a visit to Sugar, leaving the apparently frigid wives planning to run Sugar out of town. Pearl gives it her best shot to transform Sugar, but both women's painful pasts come back to haunt them in a crescendo of violent reenactments, betrayals and surprising revelations leading to a poignant, bittersweet ending. While hampered by a forced and compressed backstory, a surfeit of maudlin moments and some overwriting that is inadvertently funny, this ambitious first novel will appeal to readers who can appreciate Sugar's determination to come to terms with her past and fashion a viable future. Agent, James Vines. (Feb.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
McFadden's debut novel is an earthy slice of life in a small Southern town. When Sugar, a prostitute who never had a chance for love or a normal life, moves into the house next door to Pearl, a matron who lost her spirit after the murder of her daughter 15 years before, the two women form a bond strong enough to withstand even the most vicious gossip. But secrets from both of their pasts may prove too much even for these two compelling women, and Sugar must choose between her dreams for something better and the people she has learned to love. McFadden captures the full character of small-town life and the strengths and weaknesses of its people. This novel of friendship and loss is an excellent addition to the growing body of work by young African American writers. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/99.]--Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Sales rank:
File size:
264 KB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

JUDE was dead.

On a day when the air held a promise of summer and people laughed aloud, putting aside for a brief moment their condition, color and where they ranked among humanity, Jude, dangling on the end of childhood and reaching out toward womanhood, should have been giggling with others her age among the sassafras or dipping her bare feet in Hodges Lake and shivering against the winter chill it still clutched. Instead she was dead.

She'd been taken down by the sharp blade of jealousy, and her womanhood-so soft, pink and virginal-was sliced from her and laid to rest on the side of the road near her body. Her pigtails, thick dark ropes of hair, lay splayed out above her head, mixed in with the pine needles and road dust. Her dress, white and yellow, her favorite colors, was pulled up to her neck, revealing the small bosom that had developed over the winter.

The murder had white man written all over it. (That was only a half truth.) But no one would say it above a whisper. It was 1940. It was Bigelow, Arkansas. It was a black child. Need any more be said?

No one cared except the people who carried the same skin color. No one cared except the parents who had nursed her, stayed up all night soothing and rocking her when she was colicky. Applauded her when she took her first steps and cried when the babbling, gurgling sounds that came from her sweet mouth finally formed the words Mamma and then later, Papa.

They cared. The parents of sweet, sweet Jude, who would never hurt a fly, no less a human being. Look at what they did to her!

Word first came via the Edelson boy. He'd run all the way and was breathless when he arrived. Black John, the blacksmith, had found her about a mile down the road and covered her body with a Crocker sack while he put himself in the right frame of mind to start coming. He had to pop the boy upside the head, twice, this just to get him moving instead of gawking.

Black John remained behind, gathering the broken child into his arms and placing her gently in his wagon among the bags and crates of field provisions. He stood looking at the beaten body of this almost woman. In life, she was a tall child, strapping, like her father, but in death, she seemed so small. Perhaps it was because of her broken bones and the way her skin sank in the places between the breaks that made her look so tiny and uneven.

He shook his head in pity and looked up into the heavens for an answer. An arrow of blackbirds blinded the sun and then moved on. If that was clarification of why and what lay ahead, Black John never said, but he would think back on this day again in fifteen years' time.

His wife had helped birth this child, as she had most of the Bigelow children. She would take it hard, like she'd lost one of her own. He looked back at the child again and a heavy sigh escaped him. "No rest for the weary," he muttered and then couldn't think of why that would come to mind at all.

He was procrastinating. Standing there behind his wagon of potatoes, turnips, cabbage, yam and Jude, he was stretching the space between his arrival and the scene that would follow. Crying eyes and screaming mouths. He'd seen plenty of grief in his life. But grief let loose from a woman who lost a child-that was the worst type of grief of all. If you could, you'd try to avoid that sort. Because grief that comes from loss of child just took a piece of you away each time you met up with it.

And if you found yourself among it too often for too long, you'd certainly die way before your time.

No, Black John was in no hurry to go.

The sun sat watching curiously on its perch, delaying its descent into late afternoon. It was long past three and Black John's shadow stood stout before him, watching and waiting. He removed his straw hat, the one that belonged to his daddy before him. The one that he inherited when his uncle handed it to him with a quiet word. Black John could never remember the exact word that was spoken, but it left an emptiness in him. The strawberry-colored stain stiffening the center part of the hat's hump confused him more than scared him because his daddy hated strawberries.

Black John fingered the stain and looked back at the dead child, her dress blotched with her own strawberry stains. "Well," he muttered in resignation, as he pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his brow and the back of his neck.

He moved to the cab of the truck and removed a second empty Crocker sack from the floor. Returning to Jude he looked her over once again and shook his head in pity and then tucked the Crocker sacks around her body and went to the left of the wagon. That's when he saw it. Glistening in the sun. His shadow stepped forward and shaded the glare. Black John knew immediately what it was, although he had never seen one without a woman's support, protection and guidance behind it; something like that, once seen, always known. He leaned down and with the sweat-soiled handkerchief retrieved Jude's womanhood. He would later recount (and he often did) how it quivered in the palm of his hand.

His mule closed the distance in a slow saunter that barely disturbed the road dust. Black John looked over and his shadow looked back at him. Ahead he could see the small pond of black faces, eyes big with wanting to know, eyes big with wanting to see. Black John rode right into the middle and when he stepped down from his wagon he was six years old again, his father's straw hat, with the strawberry stain stiff and dry on its hump, in his hands. He pushed through the worn and patched sea of skirts, fought through the tree-long legs of men and bit down hard on a hand that tried to cover his too-young-for-death eyes. When he made it to the clearing there was his father. Beaten so hard and for so long that his skin had bubbled up purple. The top of his head was open and there he saw precious memories and somehow-someday dreams wrapped in I Love You colors spilled out for all of Bigelow to see. Then came the wail and Black John lost a little bit of his time on earth.

That's what scared him now. The silence. The absence of that mournful homage that broke your heart, stole time from Black John and pushed the most pious to question God.

Pearl's mouth hung open, but no sound came. Her heart had broken into tiny pieces that rose up, plugging her throat, allowing only breath to pass.

She tried again when Black John laid Jude's battered body to rest at her feet, the beaten, brutalized, eyeless body of her baby girl; but all she could do was claw at her own eyes and scratch at her throat, drawing blood instead of sound.
Pearl was fighting. Fighting with the reality that there would be no more candy sweet kisses and hugs that could magically erase a problem, worry or fear. In the halls of their home, who would skip, dance and sing so loud that the dogwoods raised their branches in delight?

Who would call her "Mamma honey baby" in that teasing, innocent voice that only Jude possessed?

And there would no longer be a reason for her to answer: "Jude baby doll."
These thoughts ran through her mind until her head ached with grief. Searing hot tears fell heavy from her eyes and landed on her bosom, soaking through the black cotton dress and white brassiere, stinging her skin and scorching her heart. The pain. The pain!

Later, she turned her face toward the heavens, unable to bear the sight of the sorrow-faced men as they covered her baby's coffin with brandy brown dirt. She had prepared herself to be taken from the earth at the very moment she heard the muffled sound of the first shovelful hit the top of the small wooden box. She had asked the Lord to release her from this life and allow her to walk beside her sweet Jude as she entered the Kingdom of Heaven.

But with each shovelful of earth, the sound that marked where Jude lay, quieted, and with the last sprinkling Pearl swayed suddenly and was aware of being lifted from the ground. She smiled, believing the Lord had answered her prayers. She quickly opened her eyes to take in, for what she thought to be the last time, the faces of her husband and two sons.

And they were there, faces pinched with concern and grief, as they hoisted her up and carried her limp body away from graveside.

She lay in bed for nearly thirty days, taking in very little food or water. Calling for Jude and crying when her call was not answered and still, as she wallowed in grief and anguish, the sorrowful wail that was reserved for mothers who've lost their only daughters, remained locked in her throat.

Pearl eventually returned to her life. Now absent of Jude. People stopped talking about it and allowed the matter to slip into the space in their minds reserved for horrors like those. She attempted to do the same, putting her pain not behind her, but beside her, where her sweet Jude should have been, and prayed not for redemption, but for salvation.

No, the Lord would not answer her prayers on that day. Not as she had wished. She did not die. Not physically. Her soul and spirit had departed our world the moment she touched the cold, bruised brow of her child. But God would keep her walking and breathing for quite a few more years to come. He had work for her to do.

From Sugar, Bernice McFadden. (c) December 1999, Bernice McFadden used by permission.

What People are saying about this

Diane McKinney-Whetstone
From the author of Blues Dancing, Tempest Rising, and Tumbling

Sugar is an amazingly accomplished first novel. Ms. McFadden's writing swells with images that are both haunting and enchanting as she unwraps a stunning tale of love and loss and transformations.

Sharon Mitchell
From the author of Nothing But The Rent

In Sugar, Bernice L. McFadden grabs the reader's attention immediately and doesn't let it go until the last sentence of the final chapter. Pearl and Sugar touch your heart and linger in your mind long after the final pages is read. Sugar is moving, tragic, and hopeful in equal measure.

Eric Jerome Dickey
From the author of Cheaters, Milk in My Coffee, and Friends and Lovers

Sugar is sooooo good! In just a few words Nernice McFadden draws you into the tiny town of Bigelow and into the lives of Pearl and Sugar. A writer's writer, she tells a story which leaves you satisfied with thought.

Pat Neblett
From Pat Neblett, President of the Black Woman's Lit Guild

Wow! It was truly a pleasure to read a well-written book by a black author. Sugar was engrossing, interesting, and thought provoking on many levels.

Akosua Busia
From Akosua Busia, author of The Seasons of Beento Blackbird

Haunting memorable, Sugar clings to one's mind long after the last page has been turned. To know Sugar is to miss her, in all her simple human-ess. Like her friend Pearl, the reader cannot help but reach to embrace her, in this touchingly written story. Bernice L. McFadden goes to the heart of her characters one to empathize and re-evaluate conscious and unconscious judgments upon fellow human beings.

Yolanda Joe
From Yolanda Joe, author of He Say, She Say and Bebe's by Golly Wow!

Driven mightily by engaging characters, Sugar is written with a wonderful combination of wit and heart.

Meet the Author

Bernice L. McFadden was born, raised and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the eldest of four children and the mother of one daughter, R'yane Azsa.

Ms. McFadden attended grade school at P.S. 161 in Brooklyn and Middle School at Holy Spirit, also in Brooklyn. She attended high school at St. Cyril Academy an all-girls boarding school in Danville, Pa.

In the Fall of 1983 she enrolled in the noted NYC fashion college: Laboratory Institute of Merchandising, with dreams of becoming an international clothing buyer.

She attended LIM for two semesters and then took a position at Bloomingdale's and later with Itokin, a Japanese owned retail company.

Disillusioned and frustrated with her job, she signed up for a Travel & Tourism course at Marymount College where she received a certificate of completion. After the birth of her daughter in 1988, Bernice McFadden obtained a job with Rockresorts a company then owned by the Rockefeller family.

The company was later sold and Ms. McFadden was laid off and unemployed for one year. She sights that year as the turning point in her life because during those twelve months Ms. McFadden began to dedicate herself to the art of writing. During the next nine years she held three jobs, always looking for something exciting and satisfying. Forever frustrated with corporate America and the requirements they put on their employees, Ms. McFadden enrolled at Fordham University. Her intention was to obtain a degree that would enable her to move up another rung on the corporate ladder.

She signed up for courses that concentrated on Afro-American history and literature, as well as creative writing, poetry and journalism. She credits the two years spent under the guidance of her professors as well as the years spent lost in the words of her favorite author's, to the caliber of writer she has become.

During those years, Ms. McFadden made a conscious effort to write as much as possible and began to send out hundreds of query letters to agents and publisher's attempting to sell one of her short stories or the novel she was working on.

In 1997, Ms. McFadden quit her job and dedicated seven months to re-writing the novel that would become, Sugar In May of 1998, after depleting her savings, she took her last and final position within corporate America.

On Feb 9th, 1999, her daughter's eleventh birthday (and Alice Walker's birthday - one of Ms. McFadden's favorite author's) she sent a query letter to an agent who signed her two weeks later and the rest is literary history!

Bernice L. McFadden is the author of three novelsthe national bestsellers, Sugar, The Warmest December, and the sequel to Sugar, entitled This Bitter Earth (all available in trade paperback from Plume) . Her fourth novel, Loving Donovan, will be available from Dutton in February 2003.  Bernice was recently awarded the Zora Neale Hurston Society Award.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Sugar 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 95 reviews.
Doonie_820 More than 1 year ago
I read this book a few years ago and it has been passed on from family member to family member and they absolutely loved it! I am adding it to my nook library and look forward to reading it again. This book is wonderfully written and sometimes I feel just like I am sitting on the porch with Sugar and Pearl enjoying some "pike aid". It is remarkable how each of their journey's through pain lead them to each other and allow them to love and protect each other as mother and daughter's often time do.
DeenyDV More than 1 year ago
This story of two most unlikely women becoming friends and battling the troubles in their lives, is such a rewarding experience for the reader. With each page you become engaged in such a deep story of love and pain for Sugar and her friend Pearl, and their need to hang on, keeping hope in their hearts.
Anonymous 10 months ago
I really enjoyed this book. It was very slow and at times confusing. There were flash backs and you were not always sure if you were in the past or the present. That being said the story was entertaining. It was emotional. I wanted to cry at times and I also wanted to curse the characters. The author made the characters come to life. I just hate that it took almost til the end of the book for many things to.come together and to be revealed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A powerful read...couldn't put it down once I started. A deep story about the unlikely becoming likely...I love how this author allows you to become the characters in the story and see through their eyes. Kudos to the author because I love a book I can almost feel like I'm there. All the characters are unique...I thought the story would only be about Sugar but then the other characters help tell her story. The ending had me gasping like there has to be more. You will not be disappointed
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book . Excellent read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is about love and acceptance. Two unlikely people become friends despite what others say about them. Good read!
jewelknits More than 1 year ago
The publisher's blurb does not do this book any justice. This is truly a must-read book for anyone: male/female, black/white, anyone who's a grownup and loves to read. The book opens powerfully: to a tragic scene of loss. The very first line; Jude was dead A mother (Pearl) loses her only daughter in a horrible fashion - before the girl has had a chance to taste what it's like to be a woman. The loss sets her reeling and takes away her laugh. Even her loving and faithful husband and adoring sons can't bring the smile back into her eyes. 15 years later, in 1955, a young woman (Sugar) who has had a life almost devoid of any real human connections moves in next door in small-town Bigelow, Arkansas. Her mother dropped her off almost at birth with a family of women who ran a house of prostitution, and the only life she's known has involved selling her body to get by. She's never owned or had anything of her own, even a family. Inheriting her own house (from someone she's never known, met, or even heard of) changes this and she decides to take full advantage of this opportunity. She pays the bills the only way she knows how, which sets tongues to wagging and even some tempers to flaring. Pearl has been asked by her minister to take Sugar under her wing when she arrives. It takes a few visits and a few shattered sweet potato pies for these two to finally become friends. Pearl's life, even with her loss, has been rather sheltered, revolving around her family, her small circle of friends, and her church. It takes quite a while for her to figure out what her neighbor is doing to earn her living. Despite this, she perseveres in her friendship with Sugar, who has an almost uncanny resemblance to her lost daughter Jude. Pearl, who is the soul of propriety and has never even gone to a juke joint (that is, until she met Sugar), is vilified by her "friends" almost as much as Sugar is. And yet ... there is just something about this young girl who could be her own that draws her in. The tale of Sugar's life and of this friendship are the core of this book. The tale of how many of the characters are connected comes out piece by tantalizing piece. You, the reader, will know more about these connections than many of the characters themselves by the end of this journey. This is the type of book that stays with you. You will continue to think about it long after you've turned the last page. It is not a pleasant book. If you are a parent, you may not be able to get through the first few pages without crying, or, at the least, feeling your heart rip in pain for the tragedy that is described. You will want to step inside of it's pages and punch some of the characters dead in their faces. Some of the scenes will punch YOU in the face. It will not end the way you want it to, but, considering the story itself, the ending is appropriate. You will not believe that this is the author's debut novel, as it is so well and powerfully written. Many reviewers have stated that there is no redemption in this book. I respectfully disagree. There IS a sort of redemption in having a taste of happiness when you haven't known any before. When a life is this difficult, even having a day of love and laughter and knowing what it is is better than never having a chance to know it at all. Being able to open yourself up to love someone new and to laugh again after a horrible loss is redemptive as well. Sensitive Reader: This book is not for you: violence, language, an
Anonymous 10 months ago
I'm not even finished with the book and I felt I needed to write a review on how great it is. Everything unfolds perfectly so far. The connections made btw each character is amazing! I look forward to writing another review when I'm done. Highly recommended!!!
Walker69 More than 1 year ago
Currently reading this book, but it is one of the best books ive read so far. This here is a page turner.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read. Couldn't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
4LadyPink More than 1 year ago
This book immediately draws you into a time period filled with African American pain and struggles. As the trials and tribulations of one character surfaces, another character grows and develops. The surprising turn of events make it difficult to put this one down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hfdosbdifb Alice.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fantastic characters..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hi. :D
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thats all.i can say AWESOME!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lady_TA More than 1 year ago
"Sugar" was interesting, it was a real page turner that had me curious. I couldn't put the book down for anything!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Two2dogs More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sugar is a book i could not put down. It kept my attention from the beginning until the end. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago