"Queen Sugar is a page-turning, heart-breaking novel of the new south, where the past is never truly past, but the future is a hot, bright promise. This is a story of family and the healing power of our connections—to each other, and to the rich land beneath our feet."
—Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage
Readers, booksellers, and critics alike are embracing Queen Sugar and cheering for its heroine, Charley Bordelon, an African American woman and single mother struggling to build a new life amid the complexities of the contemporary South.
When Charley unexpectedly inherits eight hundred acres of sugarcane land, she and her eleven-year-old daughter say goodbye to smoggy Los Angeles and head to Louisiana. She soon learns, however, that cane farming is always going to be a white man’s business. As the sweltering summer unfolds, Charley struggles to balance the overwhelming challenges of a farm in decline with the demands of family and the startling desires of her own heart.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Natalie Baszile
Three days ago, Charley Bordelon and her eleven-year-old daughter, Micah, locked up the rented Spanish bungalow with its cracked tile roof and tumble of punch-colored bougainvillea and left Los Angeles for good. In an old Volvo wagon with balding tires and a broken air conditioner, they followed the black vein of highway—first skirting the edge of Joshua Tree, where the roasted wind roared in their faces, then braving the Mojave Desert. They pushed through Arizona and New Mexico, and sailed over the Texas prairie.
Twenty-four hours ago, they crossed into Louisiana where the cotton and rice fields stretched away in a lavish patchwork of pale greens and browns, and a hundred miles after that, where the rice and cotton fields yielded to the tropical landscape of sugarcane country.
Now it was the next morning, their first full day in Saint Josephine Parish. They hadn’t seen a house or car since they turned off the Old Spanish Trail, and the road, which crossed over the Bayou Teche, was leading them farther away from town, farther out into the country, and Charley—who’d never seen real sugarcane before yesterday—thought she should have trusted her instincts; thought that if she’d just listened to the small voice that whispered take the map, they’d be there by now. Instead, she had listened to her grandmother, Miss Honey, with whom she and Micah now lived. “Put that away,” Miss Honey had said at breakfast that morning as Charley spread the map over the kitchen table. “I know how to get there. Just let me get my purse.” Now here they were—Charley and Micah and Miss Honey—wandering hopelessly, like three blind stooges, through south Louisiana’s cane country, creeping down one ragged back road till it dead-ended in a grass-choked gulley before trying another, while the sun got hotter and the air grew soupier; burning up precious time as they searched for the turnoff that would lead Charley to her fields. She had inherited eight hundred acres of sugarcane land from her father, Ernest. For the last ten months, she had pored over more aerial photos and assessors’ maps than she cared to count, signed documents and placed phone calls. She had planned what she could from a distance. The fields Charley had thought of for almost a year were out there—somewhere. Land she had to get ready for the harvest in October. God help us, she thought.
It was eight forty-five. Charley was supposed to meet Wayne Frasier at nine. The cup of Community Coffee, with its bitter note of chicory, had made her queasy. Maybe it was the coffee, but maybe not, Charley thought, as she remembered how her mother accused her of being a city girl and warned her not to make this move. Charley swore her mother was wrong, but now she thought maybe it was true. She was accustomed to measuring distance in freeway off-ramps, not hectares or miles, weighing things in pounds rather than bushels or tons. The only crop she had ever harvested were the Meyer lemons that hung lazily from the trees along her backyard fence. The only soil she ever tended came in bags from the Home Depot. She exhaled heavily. If she were a country girl, she thought, she could scan the horizon and know which of these godforsaken roads led to her fields. But she wasn’t a country girl. Not even a little.
Charley turned to her window and caught a scent of Louisiana on the June breeze; the aroma of red clay, peppery as cayenne, musty as compost, and beneath it, the hint of mildew and Gulf water. She marveled at how different the landscape was from anything she’d know back in California: the stretch of Highway 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco with its endless miles of almond and pistachio orchards, vast stretches of orange groves whose blossoms perfumed the air on early spring mornings, rolling acres of grape vineyards, tomato and cotton fields, and of course, the uninterrupted miles of reeking cattle lots—all of it with the spiny silhouette of the Sierra Nevada, like a promise, along the horizon. Charley imagined Los Angeles, with its traffic and smog and relentless sprawl, and beyond it, the never-ending coastline and immeasurable Pacific, ridiculously beautiful in the honeyed light of a southern California afternoon. Now the vast Pacific had been replaced by an ocean of sugarcane: waist-high stalks and slender, emerald-green leaves with tilled soil between. Cane as far as her eyes could see.
Charley glanced at Miss Honey. Dressed in a butter-yellow polyester dress belted high on her waist, ginger stockings rolled like doughnuts around her ankles, and white orthopedic sandals, she sat in the passenger seat clutching her white leather purse. Charley wanted to ask if they were getting close, but remembered how yesterday, Miss Honey scolded her for arriving three hours late. “Well, it’s about time. You said noon,” Miss Honey had said, standing on the top porch step. “I started to think y’all had changed your minds”; how Miss Honey had flicked that purple plastic fly swatter as if it were a riding crop, and reprimanded her for cutting her hair. “You used to have long, pretty hair,” she’d said. “Good hair. Now you look like a man.”
More minutes passed. A weather-beaten farmhouse set back from the road, a cluster of small wooden shacks in the distance that looked strangely familiar. Were they driving in circles?
“I’m sorry, Miss Honey,” Charley said. “But are you sure this is the right way?”
“Of course I’m sure,” Miss Honey said. “If that man Frasier said your place was off the Old Spanish Trail, then this is the way. This used to be an Indian road.”
Micah, who had been fiddling with an ancient Polaroid camera Miss Honey had given her, reached over the backseat and tapped Miss Honey’s shoulder. “You can’t say Indian. It’s Native American. Indian is offensive.”
“Oh, really?” Miss Honey said without turning around. “Do you know any Indians?”
“Native Americans,” Micah corrected. “Indians live in India.”
Miss Honey laughed, though Charley thought it wasn’t a laugh of delight or amusement. “Well, the Native Americans I know like to be called Indians,” Miss Honey said, fingering her purse strap. “Bunch of ’em live in the woods behind my house.” She turned to Charley. “They built a big casino with a Mexican restaurant and a fancy steak house over in Charenton. Lights up the whole sky at night.”
Charley nodded, and was about to suggest they go gambling sometime, feed the slots or take their chances at blackjack, when Miss Honey said, “Nothing over there but a pack of jackals if you ask me. Jackals and sinners.”
They drove on.
Out in the fields, a gaggle of laborers followed doggedly behind a tractor. Up ahead, the remnants of an old sugar mill—brick smokestacks, rusted corrugated siding, dust-caked windows—loomed over the cane.
Miss Honey dabbed her neck with a wad of tissue and smoothed her gray candy curls. “I can’t stand riding in a car with no air-conditioning.”
Charley nodded and added tune-up to the list of chores she’d tackle as soon as they got back to Miss Honey’s and she was able to unpack.
“Baby,” Miss Honey said, “look in that cooler and hand me a Coke.” She raised her hand, palm side up, to her shoulder. Charley recognized the gesture. Her father held his hands the same way, right down to the fingers curved as though he were gripping a ball. “Hand me a boiled egg,” he’d say during their cross-country drives to Saint Josephine when she was a girl. Or, “Reach in there and give me a couple of those cookies,” and she’d root around in the cooler he’d packed until she found what he asked for, excited to put just the right thing in her daddy’s hand.
Micah handed a bottle of Coke over the seat and Miss Honey twisted off the cap. She drew a small square packet from her purse, tore it open, and poured the contents—a tablespoon of powder the color and consistency of cornstarch—into the bottle. She swirled the mixture until a head of hissing foam rose along the glass.
“What’s that?” Micah asked.
Miss Honey took a swig. “Stanback. I take it for my headaches.”
Charley was no chemist, but she considered the properties of Coke: water, corn syrup, a healthy dose of caffeine, and guessed at the Stanback: aspirin for the pain, a little sugar to cut the bitterness, some type of amphetamine for an extra boost, and figured the combination would give quite a buzz. She wondered, as Miss Honey nursed the concoction, closed her eyes, and leaned back against the headrest, if her grandmother wasn’t mildly addicted.
Micah leaned over the seat. “Can I try some?”
“Don’t even think about it,” Charley said, and both Micah and Miss Honey looked at her as if she’d just blurted out a string of swearwords. “I mean—I’m sure Miss Honey needs her medicine. There’s water in the cooler if you’re thirsty.”
“Why your father bought land way out here is beyond me,” Miss Honey said, a moment later. “If he wanted to own a business he should have bought something in town. Russell Monroe has been trying to sell his barbershop for two years. I know he’d have let it go for nothing. And I hear some rich white fella from New Orleans just bought the old bank building on Main Street. Gonna turn it into a snazzy hotel.” She waved a dismissing hand toward the window. “There’s no one out here but a bunch of crackers.”
Charley felt her shirt clinging wetly to the knobs of her spine, and debated whether to tell Miss Honey how yesterday, soon after they crossed into the parish, she saw another car, a pickup, approaching fast in her rearview mirror. It rode her bumper, then slid parallel.
“Don’t look,” Charley had told Micah, though she couldn’t help but look herself. The passenger, a white kid in a backwards baseball cap, stared at her for several long seconds, surveyed her car, then turned to the driver, who leaned forward. Charley turned her gaze back to the road, but the driver kept pace with her, even though he was driving in the opposite lane. She held her breath. Her hands shook. Finally, the pickup pulled ahead, glided in front of her, and for what felt like forever, she couldn’t see anything but the lettering on the tailgate, the silhouettes of two naked ladies on the mud flaps. She eased her foot off the brake and fell back. The truck gunned its motor and seconds later it was gone, the glow of its brake lights disappearing as it rounded the curve. Were they in danger? Who could say, but for a moment, Charley wondered what her father had been thinking to leave her a sugarcane farm in south bumfuck Louisiana.
“You never know why people do what they do,” Charley said now, speaking louder so Micah would hear. “You just have to assume they’re doing their best.” And then she repeated the lines she’d been saying for the last ten months, the lines that had become her mantra: “I think this move will be good for us. An adventure. A fresh start.” Charley wasn’t saying this just for Micah’s sake, she was saying it for her own. Because the truth was, she needed this farm. It was the opportunity she’d been hoping for. Until now, her life hadn’t gone the way she planned. She loved her job teaching art to inner city kids, but it barely paid the bills or ate into the mountain of grad school loans. She drove a car that should have been scrapped for parts, and lived in a house she’d never own. She was thirty-four, and widowed, and may just have been a terrible mother. She needed this farm, wherever it was. She needed a second chance. She needed momentum. And a good shove.
“I reckon.” Miss Honey dabbed her neck with her tissue again. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad y’all are here. It’s been too long. But sometimes, you go looking for adventure, all you find is disaster.”
“What do you mean, ‘disaster’?” Micah said. “What’s going to happen?”
“It’s just a saying,” Charley said, but for good measure she decided not to mention the pickup or how, for the rest of the drive, she pulled over every time a truck came up behind them.
The paved road they’d been following led to a dirt path—a generous way to describe the strip of trampled ground deeply rutted with tread marks and grass growing up between. A wooden stake with the carved letter L leaned to one side.
Charley felt a rush of excitement, a warm tingling that spread over her arms and down her spine, causing her to feel a little lightheaded. “This is it.”
Dust billowed behind the Volvo until the path ended at a bank of trees. Woods stood tall and impassable to the left, but up ahead to the right sprawled open space. Charley’s heart raced as she imagined what was out there: fields so splendidly verdant she’d feel short of breath just looking at them. Her father left the door open and she had stepped through it.
Charley parked. Then she, Micah, and Miss Honey made their way over the clotted ground.
“Holy moly!” Micah cried. “It’s huge!” She took a picture with the ancient Polaroid, then hurled a stick far into the tangle of weeds and creeping vines.
“My God,” Charley muttered. “This can’t be.” Across the field, wide and long as ten city blocks, stunted cane stalks dotted the earth, their straggly leaves a starved shade of pale green with deeply sunburned edges. Grass and weeds grew thick and matted between the rows, which were preposterously rutted with tire tracks. Even to Charley’s untrained eye, it was clear no one had been out there in months. Where were the neatly tilled rows, the lush cane plants high as a man’s shoulder? Where was the moist soil, dark and rich as ground French Roast? Under a morning sky coated with clouds gray as concrete, Charley stared out over fields that should have looked like the hundreds of lush acres she passed on the drive down, but didn’t.
“I thought this Frasier fella was managing the place,” Miss Honey said, raising her hand to shield against the glare.
“He was.” Charley twisted her wedding ring absentmindedly. “Last time we talked, he said something about replacing a tractor belt.”
“Well, I’d say he’s got some explaining to do.”
Charley consulted her watch. They were five minutes late. “You think he’s been here and left already?”
“I couldn’t tell you what he might do,” Miss Honey said. “I don’t know this Frasier from Adam’s housecat.”
“I know where we should put the cows,” Micah declared, peering through her camera’s viewfinder. “They can live out by those trees.”
“This isn’t that kind of farm,” Charley said.
“But we can’t have a farm without cows,” Micah pressed. “What about goats?”
“Well, what then?”
Charley glanced at her watch again, then squeezed the bridge of her nose. “Sweetheart, why don’t you walk around and take some pictures.” White clouds, thick as mashed potatoes, drifted across the sky. Something that looked like a flat-winged bee bounced between the blossoming vines as hot air rose from the dirt.
“My feet are starting to swell,” Miss Honey said. “I’ll be in the car.”
It was almost ten o’clock before an old Ford F-150 with a “Jesus is my co-pilot” license place rambled down the road ahead of a long contrail of dust. George Strait’s crooning voice wafted through the truck’s open window. A white man sat behind the wheel.
“Thank God.” Charley waved. She had imagined Frasier as older, early sixties perhaps, and stocky as a lumberjack. She had imagined a man wearing embossed cowboy boots and a cowboy hat with a cane leaf braided around the band. But the man who climbed down from the truck looked much younger. Years of physical labor had worn any possibility of fat from his frame. His NASCAR jersey had Dale Earnhardt’s picture on the front and sun gilded his brown hair, which, at that moment, was wet. She walked over to greet him. “Mr. Frasier?”
“Miss Bordelon,” Frasier said, in the same flat tone she recognized from the phone. “Sorry about the time. Some accident on the road.”
“No, no, that’s okay,” Charley said, extending her hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you. In person, I mean.”
“Likewise.” Frasier gave her hand a firm shake but didn’t say anything more.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this day.” Charley gestured toward the fields. “It’s good to see everything for myself. I’d have come down sooner, but I had to wait for my daughter to finish school. Now that I’m here, though, I’m ready to get down to business.” She waited for Frasier to respond, but he didn’t, so Charley, growing increasingly uneasy, plunged in deeper. “I know we talked about all the work to be done, but I have more questions. For starters, and I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, I was looking at the fields and I noticed . . . Well, they don’t look exactly like I thought they would.” Like they should.
“Yeah, well.” Frasier threaded his thumbs through his belt loops. He was hard-core Nashville and Grand Ole Opry. Jim Beam straight from the bottle.
“I don’t mean to question your work,” Charley said. “It’s just that I passed plenty of other fields on my drive into town and they were so neat, so orderly, and I—”
“Thought yours would look better,” Frasier said.
“Well, yes. But I don’t want you to think I’m criticizing—”
“Actually, Miss Bordelon.” Frasier looked at Charley with a pained expression, then straightened as though he’d practiced what he was about to say. “I won’t be working for you.”
“You won’t be what?”
“I took another job.”
Frasier fell silent. He looked down at the ground, then out over the fields.
“But when?” Charley said. “Why didn’t you tell me?” She stared at Frasier. He had an honest face, the kind you’d want to see if you were stranded along the roadside with a flat tire late at night. “Are you working for someone else? Because if it’s money, I don’t have much, but I’m sure we can work something out.” Without thinking, she touched her wedding ring again, a platinum band that had been pounded thin in back where the jeweler made it larger. Six angled prongs framed an enormous diamond that had belonged to Davis’s mother before it became her engagement ring.
“My brother-in-law pulled some strings,” Frasier said. “Got me a job on a rig.”
“Oil rig,” Frasier said. “Out in the Gulf.”
Charley twisted her ring so that the diamond pressed into her palm. “But I just talked to you two weeks ago. You didn’t say anything about another job.”
“I know. I wanted to try it out first.”
“You’re kidding, right? This is a joke. We’re supposed to harvest this cane in October. We only have five months.”
Frasier batted at the closest cane plant, then ripped a withering leaf from the stalk. “I’ve been working cane since I was sixteen, Miss Bordelon. I’m shamed to admit it, but I don’t have a penny saved. If I bust a knee, what’ll I do? Couple years back, Mr. LeJeune took—”
“Mr. LeJeune. The man who owned this farm before your daddy. When he got too sick to run this place himself, his kids stepped in. But they weren’t really interested. They were off in New Orleans, riding on floats, going to balls, drinking Pimm’s Cups at the Columns Hotel.”
“I won’t be riding on floats,” Charley said. “And I’ve never heard of a Pimm’s Cup. Mr. Frasier, please.”
Frasier crumpled the cane leaf in his palm. “I had to beg ’em to plant enough cane last year and they hardly took care of the cane that was here. When LeJeune died, they scraped by until they sold. Your daddy convinced me we could bring this place back. But now he’s gone too.”
“But I’m here,” Charley said. “Give me a chance.”
Frasier shredded another cane leaf. “If I don’t do something now, I’ll run out of money before I run out of air. I don’t want to be greeting folks at Walmart when I’m sixty-five.”
“But I was counting on you. I’ve been paying you.”
Frasier pulled two checks from his breast pocket, handed them to Charley, and she saw that they were the ones she’d mailed weeks ago. “I’ve asked around. Problem is, this time of year, anyone worth hiring has already signed on for a job.”
Charley touched Frasier’s jersey as if it were the hem of his royal robe. If he wore a ring she would have kissed it. She would have knelt if he’d asked her to. “Please, Mr. Frasier. Wait one season. You’ve put me in a terrible bind.”
Frasier looked at her with great sympathy. “Your daddy was a good man,” he said. “I never met him in person, but I could tell. And I can tell you’re a good person too.” He brushed his hands on his pants. “But two more months and I get my union card. I’ll have benefits.”
“We both know I can’t run this place by myself. Please. I’m begging you.”
“It only seemed right to tell you in person.”
Charley looked out at her fields. The cane seemed to have withered even more in the hour since she arrived. Birds, whose chipper singing she hadn’t noticed until now, seemed to mock her with their chatter. “All this time and you never said a word.” A tremendous lump thickened in her throat and she turned away, willing herself not to cry. She fully expected Frasier to leave, but he waited patiently, hands wedged deep in his back pockets.
“If you’d like to go over things,” he offered.
Somehow, Charley managed to write down the instructions he gave her: how to start the tractor, where to buy replacement parts, diesel and fertilizer, what tools were in the shop, directions to the Ag station. She took notes, but had no idea what to do with them.
At last, Frasier looked openly at his watch. “I guess that does it.” He turned to leave, stepping sure-footedly over the ruts and clumps of soil. At his truck, he paused. “It’s good land. I hope you know that. Good luck to you, Miss Bordelon.”
And then he was gone.
* * *
Once Frasier’s truck disappeared, Charley walked unsteadily back to the car, where Miss Honey fanned herself with an envelope.
“How’d it go?”
“Fabulous,” Charley said, sliding in. “He’s a gem. A real man of his word.” She held herself together long enough to slip her keys into the ignition. The engine turned over. But as she shifted into reverse, Charley thought about how much her life had slipped. Six hours ago, she felt like a girl getting ready for a dance, with lights and music and a new life stretched out before her like a red silk carpet. Now she was a girl who kept losing things: she lost her husband in a holdup he just had to resist and she almost lost her daughter. She lost her father to cancer, and now she was about to lose his strange and unexplained legacy, this sugarcane farm. She had a pad of notes she could barely read, her manager had quit, and she was out in the middle of God knew where. Charley stopped the car. She took a long, deep breath. Then she hid her face in her hands and sobbed.
“When you stood there for so long, I had a feeling,” Miss Honey said. She rubbed Charley’s back with the flat of her hand.
At the feel of Miss Honey’s touch, Charley cried harder. “I’m sorry.”
Miss Honey pressed a damp napkin from the cooler into Charley’s hands. “That’s okay, chère. Let it out,” she said. “’Cause you got a big job ahead of you. And in a minute, you’re gonna have to pull yourself together.”
At the far edge of the field, Micah’s yellow T-shirt and orange shorts flashed like banners against the brown earth as she started to run.
“Who’d Ernest buy this place from?” Miss Honey asked.
Charley wiped her eyes, watching her daughter approach. “Some family named LeJeune.”
Miss Honey looked surprised. For a moment, it seemed as though she might say something, but she just nodded and let Charley collect herself.
“Look at these,” Micah said, panting, as she reached the car. She handed four Polaroids through the window before she saw Charley’s face. “Mom? Why are you crying? Miss Honey, what’s wrong with my mom?”
Miss Honey opened a bottle of water and offered it to Micah. “Quiet, chère. You mamma’s having a bad day.”
Excerpted from "Queen Sugar"
Copyright © 2015 Natalie Baszile.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
"In her heartfelt and beautiful debut novel, Natalie Baszile tells a tale of the South that is as deeply rooted in time and place as it is universal. How do we make sense of family? Loss? The legacies passed down to us? These are the questions that Charley, a young widowed mother, grapples with, as she tries to save the sugarcane plantation that is her inheritance and which, unbeknownst to her, holds the answers to both her past and her future."
—Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being
"Natalie Baszile debuts with an irresistible tale of family, community, personal obligation, and personal reinvention. The world is full of things that keep you down and things that lift you up—Queen Sugar is about both and in approximately equal measure. Smart and heart-felt and highly recommended."
—Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
"Queen Sugar is a gorgeous, moving story about what grounds us as brothers and sisters, as mothers and daughters, and all the ways we fight to save each other. Natalie Baszile’s characters put brave roots into inhospitable ground, looking for a place, a person, a community to call home. I alternately laughed and wept as they failed each other, forgave each other, lost each other, found themselves. It’s a wise, strong book, and I loved it. You will, too."
—Joshilyn Jackson, New York Times bestselling author of Someone Else's Love Story
"After turning the last page of Queen Sugar, I already miss the gutsy, contemporary African American woman who ditches California and migrates to Louisiana to run her inherited cane farm. Natalie Baszile is a fresh, new voice that resists all Southern stereotypes, and delivers an authentic knock-out read."
—Lalita Tademy, New York Times bestselling author of Cane River and Red River
“Raw with hardship and tender with hope, Queen Sugar digs deep to the core of a courageous young widow’s life as she struggles to keep her farm in Louisiana’s sugarcane country. Natalie Baszile writes with a bold and steady hand.”
—Beth Hoffman, New York Times bestselling author of Looking for Me and Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
"Queen Sugar is a page-turning, heart-breaking novel of the new south, where the past is never truly past, but the future is a hot, bright promise. This is a story of family and the healing power of our connections—to each other, and to the rich land beneath our feet."
—Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow
“Natalie Baszile’s Queen Sugar is a sweeping, beautifully wrought, and uniquely American story that brings to vibrant life the little known world of Louisiana’s sugarcane country. I fell in love with Charley Bordelon—her huge heart, her kindness, her courage, and her resilience. A lyrical and page-turning meditation on second chances, reinvention, family, and race, Queen Sugar casts quite a spell.”
—Melanie Gideon, author of The Slippery Year and Wife 22
"Queen Sugar is an accomplished, confident narrative that announces the arrival of a writer to watch."
—Krys Lee, author of Drifting House
“Gorgeous . . . an exquisitely written book about the joys and sorrows of family, love, endurance, and hard work.”
—Peter Orner, author of Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge
Reading Group Guide
Charley Bordelon is a widowed single mother who is just barely scraping by, teaching art to inner city kids and living in a dilapidated rented bungalow in Los Angeles. But when she discovers that her late father has left her an 800-acre sugar cane plantation in rural Louisiana, she suddenly sees a chance to steer her life back on course. No one in the family had any idea that Ernest Bordelon sold everything he had in order to secure a cane farm outside his tiny hometown of Saint Josephine, and certainly no clue as to why. With nothing left to lose, Charley decides to honor her father's wishes and heads south to start her new life as a sugar cane farmer. So begins Queen Sugar, the debut novel from Natalie Baszile that charts Charley's successes and struggles as a novice farmer, as a dedicated mother and a grieving daughter, and as an African American woman in the Deep South.
Once in Louisiana, Charley and her eleven-year-old daughter Micah take up residence in the home of Miss Honey, Charley's grandmother and the matriarch of the extended Bordelon family. Miss Honey is a towering personality, a Bible-quoting dynamo with a quick temper, but also a woman whose generosity and love for her family know no bounds. Miss Honey believes in loyalty above all and soon she has opened her home not only to Charley and Micah, but also to Charley's half-brother Ralph Angel and his young son, Blue. Like Charley, Ralph Angel is a single parent surviving the emotional toll of a spouse's death, but this is where their similarities end; Ralph Angel has a history of drug abuse, violence, and petty crime, and no one but Miss Honey is happy to see him back in town. While Charley balances the needs of family and farm life, Ralph Angel-broke, bitter, and hiding from the law-conspires to claim what he sees as his rightful share of her inheritance.
Baszile has created a world rich with local Louisiana detail, and she captures both the tensions and intimacies of small town life. Charley inhabits a complicated position within the white male cane farming community, and Baszile paints a nuanced portrait of how much-and how little-Southern race relations have changed over the generations. When Charley finally discovers the sad truth behind Ernest's desire to bequeath her the sugar cane property, she understands that her farm's success will be a vindication for both father and daughter. In Charley, Baszile has given us a heroine who is by turns feisty, ambitious, vulnerable, and compassionate, and whose depth of emotion leaps off the page; her portrayal of Charley's successes and failures to be a good mother, provider, and role model for her daughter will resonate with readers facing the same daily challenges. Honest, engrossing, and heartwarming, Baszile's Queen Sugarannounces the arrival of an exciting and accomplished new voice in contemporary Southern fiction.
ABOUT NATALIE BASZILE
Natalie Baszile holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers and an MA in Afro American Studies from UCLA. She lives in San Francisco with her family. This is her first novel.
A CONVERSATION WITH NATALIE BASZILE
The novel demonstrates a real affection for the people and landscape of Louisiana. Do you have a personal connection with that state?
I do have a personal connection. My dad was born in Louisiana, in a little town called Elton; so even though I'm a California native, a suburban kid, I feel that I have the right to claim the place as part of who I am. With one exception, my dad's siblings and most of their children, my cousins, still live in south Louisiana. They are wonderful people-warm and welcoming-and it doesn't matter how many months or even years pass between visits, they are always happy to see me. Louisiana, particularly south Louisiana, is so different from what I knew growing up. It's a peculiar mix of cultures and ethnicities-black, white, French, Spanish, Italian, and most recently southeast Asian and Latino-and I find the people to be friendly and incredibly generous. A friend here in San Francisco recently said that folks in south Louisiana won't rest until they've fed you and introduced you to someone else they think you'll like-and it's true! That's how I've met so many of the people I now consider close friends. As for the landscape, I will confess that south Louisiana is pretty flat, which was jarring to my senses when I first started going down there to do research. I was accustomed to more variation-all the shapes and elevations you see in a city, along the coast, or in the mountains. But I quickly came to appreciate beauty in the gentle curve of a bayou, and the contrast between blue sky and endless acres of green sugarcane.
What prompted you to write Queen Sugar? How long did it take?
Queen Sugar took almost exactly twelve years to write. I quit my job on June 15, 1999. I remember the exact date because that was the day I left my family business, started writing in earnest, and officially thought of myself as a writer. I got a book deal in July 2011.
It all started when my grandmother, my father's mother, died in 1997, and my family and I flew down to Elton for her funeral. My grandmother had been a prominent member of her community, a founding member of her church, and she seemed to know everyone. When she died, everyone in Elton, as well as people from nearby towns, showed up for her funeral. The little church was packed. People stood in the aisles, poked their heads through the windows, spilled out into the churchyard. I'd never seen anything like it. At the time, I'd written a story about a father and son-the characters who eventually became Ralph Angel and Blue-who were living in their car somewhere out West. As I sat in the family pew, watching all the people approach my grandmother's casket to pay their respects, it occurred to me that this was where the father and son were from, and that they would eventually make their way back. I suddenly understood that I needed to tell a larger story. It's funny to think that I created Ralph Angel and Blue before I created Charley and Micah, but that's the way the characters came to me.
The novel is organized by month, charting Charley's progress toward harvest time. Why did you decide to structure the book this way?
I wanted the novel to take place during one season, which, for sugarcane, begins in March when farmers start cultivating their fields, and ends on December 31st when the harvest, called grinding, ends. What better way for readers to truly understand what happens during each period of the growing cycle than to divide the book into months? I also thought it was important, critical even, that the reader feel the pressure of time passing just as Charley does, so organizing the book by month seemed like the natural choice. Finally, I always love books that are divided in some interesting way; it's like taking a breath, inhaling, and then exhaling.
Charley is a nuanced character: tough yet vulnerable, stubborn yet compassionate. Did she arrive fully formed when you began writing the novel, or did she develop over various drafts?
Charley definitely evolved over time. For a long time, she was too well-mannered, too polite. All the other characters were flawed in some way, and that made them human, relatable. But for the longest time, Charley never lost her temper, never fell apart; she never made a mistake. It was a huge problem because readers didn't understand her; they didn't understand what motivated her and couldn't get a firm hold on her character. At one point, one of the women in my writing group got so frustrated, she actually yelled at me: "Charley is ruining the book!" That was a real wake up call and I realized the reason Charley was unknowable was because I, as the writer, was afraid of misbehaving, of making a mistake. I was too well-mannered. I was constantly editing myself-in my life and on the page-and while Charley was not me, she was the most "like" me. We both needed to loosen up. Because the truth is, perfect characters, just like perfect people, are boring. Once I relaxed and allowed myself to be more vulnerable, less reserved, experience the full range of emotion, I could imagine that for Charley. And once I did that, she came to life.
The level of detail you provide about sugar cane farming-equipment, methods, terminology-is impressive. How much research did you need to do before writing this book?
I did tons of research; I had to. Many of my closest friends live in south Louisiana, and some, for a time, even farmed sugarcane, so I knew the story had to ring true. That was always my goal, the ultimate test: that whenever my Louisiana friends read the book they would agree that I got the details right. The farmers I met were incredibly generous. They let me ride on tractors and in combines, and they took me through the sugarcane mills. They even let me plant sugarcane. From 2005 until 2011, I visited Louisiana every quarter so I could experience a different aspect of the growing season and also soak up the culture. There was no way I could sit at my desk and make up those details.
The name Ralph Angel is an unusual one, but also ironic considering his behavior. How did you choose this name?
I don't recall where I was the first time I heard the name Ralph Angel, but I do remember what happened when I heard it: I felt a jolt-as though someone had dropped a huge cement block nearby or something exploded underground. The ground sort of shook, and I remember thinking, "What a strange name. He's going to be a character in a story one day." I knew right away that whatever else Ralph Angel would be, he would be troubled in some way, and that when the story began, he would be far from home.
Charley's relationship with Remy is both romantic and extremely challenging. While he is a smart and sensitive man, he is clearly influenced by the racial tensions of Saint Josephine and his comment-"It's almost like you're not black at all" (p. 282)-is heartbreaking. How does Charley manage to move past this?
Remy's comment really knocks the wind out of Charley. She is deeply disappointed because she and Remy are otherwise so compatible. Ultimately, Charley decides to take Violet's advice: to love and accept Remy for who he is and the role he can play in her life. He's a lovely man as you say-smart and sensitive-and the fact that he's thoughtful and self-aware enough to acknowledge his own limitations helps a lot. But what Charley comes to understand is that he doesn't have to be everything for her; she doesn't need him to be. I love Violet's advice because she reminds Charley to draw strength from herself. She reminds Charley that ultimately, she's the architect of her own life, and that's such an important thing for women to know.
Do you think Miss Honey was too forgiving of Ralph Angel's misdeeds? Was she too determined to blame herself for his failings or do you believe that the sadness of his life is her responsibility?
I think Miss Honey can't help but be forgiving. She loves Ralph Angel the way any mother loves her child, or in this case, her grandchild. It's incredibly difficult to give up on someone and draw a line through his name when you feel that he is a part of you. But I will also say that Miss Honey is blinded by her own guilt. She carries the burden of Ralph Angel's failure, and feels responsible, not just for Ralph Angel, but for Ernest, and that is as motivating a factor as her love. I have my thoughts about Ralph Angel, but I want readers to form their own opinions. I will say that to my mind, Ralph Angel is a tragic figure-a troublemaker, yes, but so much more than that-and on some level, all the characters are implicated in what happens to him. His presence in the book speaks to larger social issues with which this country still grappling.
Southern women's fiction has been extremely popular for the past few years. What do you think is its greatest appeal?
Southern women writers, both black and white, can write about some of the most complicated relationships in American culture because they've lived them. They've lived and breathed the power dynamics, and can render that experience from a variety of perspectives. They have played out those intimate relationships over generations. I think readers are curious about that intimacy between blacks and whites because it plays out all over the country, but northern or even western women writers don't have the same long, nuanced history. They haven't experienced the intimacy to the same degree. And so, whenever a certain kind of southern woman writer is gritty enough, is honest enough, to write about that history and those relationships, it makes for compelling, fascinating reading.
What books are you currently reading? Do you read for pleasure or for inspiration?
I currently have a mix of books on my nightstand. I don't write poetry, but I love to read it for its calming effect, and also for its precision of language and imagery. I'm currently savoring Natasha Trethewey's newest poetry collection, Thrall, and Jake Adam York's Persons Unknown. I told a friend recently how much I love New Orleans, so he gave me Walker Percy's The Moviegoer; and I just bought Solomon Northup's narrative, Twelve Years A Slave, which some of my Louisiana pals read years ago and told me about. I'm also reading short stories by Tom Barbash, Caitlin Horrocks, and a wonderful young Nigerian writer, Chinelo Okparanta. Then there are the novels that are my touchstones, the ones I've read a dozen times and always have within reach: Ernest Gaines's Of Love and Dust, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. When I need a change of pace, I dip into Best American Essays. The truth is, I have a bad-I say "bad" but it's actually a delicious and satisfying-habit of buying books even though I know I won't read them for months. I can't help myself. Just last week, I was in my local bookstore circling around Donna Tartt's new novel, The Goldfinch. I was on the verge of buying it, actually had in my hand, but forced myself to put it back because my shelves are sagging under the weight of all the books I've bought and have yet to read. Books are my weakness; they're like Kryptonite. Books . . . and shoes.
Are you currently working on another novel? If so, can you offer any details?
I have the idea for my next novel. I'm reading and taking notes, but I haven't started writing. I can tell you that it's also set in Louisiana but I don't want to say much more. I think it was Chang Rae Lee who said if an author talks about a book often or too early, "it loses too much wind."