From Jewell Parker Rhodes, the author of Towers Falling and Ninth Ward (a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and a Today show Al's Book Club for Kids pick) comes a tale of a strong, spirited young girl who rises beyond her circumstances and inspires others to work toward a brighter future. Ten-year-old Sugar lives on the River Road sugar plantation along the banks of the Mississippi. Slavery is over, but laboring in the fields all day doesn't make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar has a knack for finding her own fun, especially when she joins forces with forbidden friend Billy, the white plantation owner's son. Sugar has always yearned to learn more about the world, and she sees her chance when Chinese workers are brought in to help harvest the cane. The older River Road folks feel threatened, but Sugar is fascinated. As she befriends young Beau and elder Master Liu, they introduce her to the traditions of their culture, and she, in turn, shares the ways of plantation life. Sugar soon realizes that she must be the one to bridge the cultural gap and bring the community together. Here is a story of unlikely friendships and how they can change our lives forever.
Jewell Parker Rhodes is an award-winning author and the Piper Endowed Chair and founding artistic director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. Her books for adults have won the American Book Award and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award for Literary Excellence. Ninth Ward, her first novel for young readers, was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a Notable Book for a Global Society, and a Today show Al's Book Club for Kids selection.
Folks say, "There wouldn't be any good food without sugar." Like rhubarb cobbler. Blueberry pie. Yellow cake.
But I hate sugar. I won't eat it. Not ever.
"No sweets, just savories," I used to tell Ma. "Corn bread. Grits." Even nasty okra and green beans are better than sugar.
There's all kinds of sugar. Crystals that turn lemons into lemonade. Syrup that cools into taffy. Or pralines, brittle. There's even sugarcane you can suck until your lips wrinkle and pucker.
In the mill, there're mountains of sugar ready to be shipped from Louisiana to the whole wide world.
Ma would say, "Most folks think sugar is something in a tin cup or a china bowl. They don't know sugar is hard."
"Hard," I'd echo as she poured well water into a bowl.
"Months of planting, hoeing, harvesting. Bones aching, sweat stinging your eyes. Dirt clings everywhere."
"Beneath nails, toes. Even in my hair," I'd complain before splashing my face with water.
Me and Ma always smelled of sugar, sweat, and dirt.
"What did I smell like when I was born?"
"Spring," she'd whisper, wiping my face dry. "Not Planting-Day spring. Just spring. Blooming, lemony, and fresh."
I wish I could remember that clean smell.
When I was two days old, Ma strapped me to her back and cut cane.
Nights, we ate cornmeal cakes. Then me and Ma would lie on our hay mattress on the packed-dirt floor.
"Sugar's hard," she'd sigh, kissing my cheek, twice, before sleep.
Before another day tending cane.
River Road is almost nothing but cane. There're two rows of slave shacks. Mostly empty now. There's the big plantation house where the Willses live. The mill where cane is boiled and dried into crystals. The stable and henhouse.
The rest is cane. Growing ten feet high, row after row, as far as the eye can see. When wind blows, cane hisses, comes alive, swaying like a dancing forest. Thin, pointy leaves lick the air, flapping like streamers. It's pretty. 'Til you get close. Then sugar gets nastier than any gator.
Sugar bites a hundred times, breaking skin and making you bleed. Each leaf has baby teeth on all its edges. Even with work gloves, tiny red pricks itch everywhere. My cheeks get smacked. By harvest's end, my face, hands, and arms are all cut up.
Outside River Road Plantation, nobody cares who cuts cane. Nobody cares my hand swings the machete, bundles, drags stalks onto the cart.
At River Road, my hands are the youngest. Everyone else's hands, except Lizzie's (she's two years older than me), are old and wrinkled. Grown hands, stiff and scarred. Sometimes the old folks put their hands in warm water with peppermint to heal. Or rub them with fatback sprinkled with cayenne.
I've lived at River Road my entire life. Cane is all I know. Cutting, cracking, carrying pieces of cane. My back hurts. Feet hurt. Hands get syrupy. Bugs come. Sugar calls—all kinds of bugs, crawling, inching, flying. Nasty, icky bugs.
I hate, hate, hate sugar.
During harvest, Mister Wills sets lamps so folks can cut cane all night. "Cane won't wait," he says. He shouts, "Cane time, cuttin' time." Or he snarls, "Two bits extra for the most cane cut." Then, everybody speeds up and there're more tiny bites. Just like teeth chew rows of corn, sugar-teeth chew on you.
Mister Wills just walks and watches everyone work. Behind him, Tom, the Overseer, cracks the whip, spraying dirt.
Since Emancipation, there're not enough workers. Almost everyone young enough, without gnarled, crinkly brown hands, has gone north.
"Some folks are scared to leave," said Ma. "They say, 'The bad I know is better than the bad I don't.' They don't believe they have strength left for adventure."
"We're ready for adventure. We're strong."
"That's right," said Ma, hugging me close.
We waited for Pa, who was sold right after I was born, to come back for us. We were going to run away. Head north. We waited and waited. When the war started, Ma whispered, "Pa's fighting for the Union. I just know it. Helping to free us." We waited for him, proud, hoping. The war ended. President Lincoln won. Still, we waited. Five years of freedom and Pa still didn't come.
Then Ma got sick and died. Her strength drained like water.
I'm ten now.
I'm not a slave anymore.
Except from sugar.
Harvest Is Done
Tonight, folks are smiling, rocking, clapping hands. Everyone is happy, rich. Mister Wills has paid us our dollars.
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. But tonight, everyone is proud. Tonight is like Christmas.
Tomorrow, everybody can rest.
"Thank the Lord," says Mister Petey in his gravelly voice. "Another harvest done. Thank goodness, I can sleep."
I think, Thank goodness, I can play. Go where I want. Do what I want.
"No need to wake early," says Missus Ellie, tired, her chin quivering. Sick or well, she cuts cane. Like me, she has no blood family. "I'll sleep 'til noon."
I'll be up at sunrise.
The campfire crackles. Everybody's outside our stuffy shacks.
Stars are blinking. A breeze carries wet air from the Mississippi.
"No work tomorrow!" shouts Mister Beale, stretching his fingers toward the moon. All along his arms are scars, thick and knotted.
He smiles at me.
I smile back. I love Mister Beale. He tells me stories even though Missus Beale thinks they're useless. "You could be working, eating, sleeping. Humph, humph, humph," she says, disapproving. "Made-up stories are a waste of good time."
I'm hoping Mister Beale will tell one of his Br'er Rabbit and Hyena tales. Tell how Rabbit tricked Hyena into falling in the river, how Hyena got stuck on a mountain ledge. How Rabbit always fools mean Hyena.
My eyes are heavy. Last day of harvest is as hard as the first.
Lizzie sits down beside me, tugging her shift over her knees, her hands folded primly in her lap.
"Hey," I say.
"Hey," she answers, her mouth downturned. Since the Johnsons and their boys, Mo, Charlie, and Lloyd, went north, she's been lovesick. Lizzie's stuck on Mo, even though he's got big ears, big teeth.
Lizzie's my only friend. When we aren't working, we've always had fun together. We're the only kids left. But Lizzie doesn't climb trees anymore (she sighs instead), she doesn't run (she swishes), and she doesn't like pranks ("Childish," she says).
"Let's play rope," I say. "Tomorrow. Early, first light."
Looking right, I can see the horizon, a red glow for miles in the darkness where the sugarcane used to be. I can even see clear to the big house, its windows glowing. Mister and Missus Wills are having a party, too. Manon and Annie, the house servants, roasted a pig.
I twirl my pigtail around my finger, scratch the scab on my knee.
Mister Waters, the boiler man, plays a banjo made of wood and wires. One side of his face and arm are burnt pinkish-white. Syrup, in the cauldron, bubbled and burst. His arm saved half his face. He plucks, delicate. Still, the sound is harsh and sweet, clanky and bright at the same time.
I'm still hoping for a story.
Old folks are dancing. Mister Beale stomps his feet. Missus Beale claps. Mister Petey pounds his thighs like a drum. Missus Celeste, whose job it is to watch the syrup cool and carefully separate brown crystals from white, is stepping side to side, twirling with an imaginary friend.
I glance sideways at Lizzie. She's staring at nothing, yet her face is marked with longing. My friend has disappeared. Grown up. Gotten old, older than me.
Folks who left River Road hooted and hollered: "Going north"; "Going to live up north"; "There's new life in the North." Even Mister Beale's pretty daughter and eldest son got starry-eyed and caught north fever. They begged their parents to go with them. Mister Beale told them, "We're too old, too slow."
I'm not too old or slow! But no one left will take me.
Up north, I could find new friends. Or old ones—Winnie, Charlie, and Ulysses. But I'm afraid to go by myself. No one who went north has ever come back.
Still, it's a good night. My stomach is filled with red beans, a little pork.
Tomorrow, I'll search for an eagle's nest.
I smile, then quickly squeeze my lips shut. Missus Thornton is bearing down on me. I scramble up. Just 'cause she's the preacher's wife, she feels a "calling," as Ma said, "to fix everything. And everyone!" She's got her determined "pity- pity" look. Pity poor me, she thinks. Pa gone. Ma gone. "Scrawny. Pitiful child," she says. "This is what you need."
I try to scramble away. She catches my sleeve and pushes a plate in front of my face. Bars caked with sugar. Squares of sickly sweet stuff.
I gag. I can't help it. I cover my mouth. Then drop my hands. I throw up.
Missus Thornton screams, "Sugar!"
Then I start to cry. Sugar is my name.
I stretch, wriggling my toes, arching my back. No cane today!
Even though it's cold, I don't care. I throw off my blanket and slip on my shoes. The soles are thin; I feel every pebble. I get my shawl, wrapping it over my head and shoulders. I grab a biscuit, then dash onto the porch, wanting to crow, like Rooster Ugly, at the brightening sky. Everyone else is still asleep. Sleeping on the floor of our old slave shacks. Even Rooster Ugly hasn't stirred.
Puffs of white clouds float like meal cakes. Frost covers the dirt yard, the shacks' porches and steps.
I'm off, running. Free. Sprinting to the river, my soles flapping against my bare feet.
I run, swallowing big gulps of air. I run past cane fields, then up the grassy knoll where the big house sits to keep dry when the river overflows.
I smell the Mississippi before I see it. Muddy and tangy from algae, marsh grasses, and sedge. Nothing like sugar!
I whoop down the riverbank, kicking up dust, tiny rocks. I startle a raccoon. I pass trees, some dark and shriveled, some bright and evergreen. The sun rises, making the frost sparkle.
I see it—the Mississippi River, powerful, wide, and stretching long. Looking left or right, you can't tell where water ends.
I wave at the sailor atop a barge. He waves back.
"Take it away," I shout. "Take the sugar away!"
The sailor salutes me.
I twirl, pinch my shift, and curtsy.
Dozens of men are hauling sugar onto the barge. There are tracks that run the miles of fields, straight to the mill. From the mill, huge metal buckets of brown sugar are pushed, pulled down the tracks. Straight to the dock.
I run, fast and hard along the riverbank. Darting northward, I'm a ship chugging to St. Louis. Then I turn around and run south. Chug-chug-chugging down to New Orleans.
The barge hoots long and low. Ooooo. Ooooo.
Bye, sugar. Bye. Good riddance.
River water stretches into land, making shallow coves, streams, and swamp marshes. Dropping my shawl, I squat where the water's not too deep.
I splash my hands in the water. It's muddy brown. Reeds, grass, and algae choke the water. Bluegills skim the surface, puckering their mouths, eating bugs. A pelican dives for breakfast.
I see a turtle.
I slip off my shoes and step into the cold water. I clench my chattering teeth. "Luck, luck, luck," Ma told me. "Touching a turtle's back brings luck."
Sand and mud are racing over my feet, through my toes. The turtle's little legs are flapping, stroking faster than I can walk. Water swirls around my knees. I take wider, bigger steps. I reach.... I reach.... I fall.
The turtle shoots away, dives, and disappears.
I'm wet, shivering.
Quick, I stand, happy the water isn't deep. Happy there aren't any snakes. Or worse, gators.
Onshore, I squeeze water from my shift's hem.
I hear a whistle, sharp and shrill.
I stare into the trees. Wind's rustling leaves, holly bushes. Everything else is still. Quiet.
Who's out there? Overseer Tom? A chicken thief? A peddler?
I'm not afraid of them.
Chin up, I gather twigs, sticks, and dry grass. I start a small fire and sit, wrapping my shawl close. I get warm, warmer.
I undo my kerchief and bite into the biscuit.
I hear a whistle again.
Billy Wills, the owner's son, steps out of the bush. Leaves are pasted on his clothes; his face is brushed with mud.
"You've been following me?" I shout, angry. "Watching me, Billy Wills?"
Billy grins, his eyes blue as robin's eggs. "Did you guess? Did you know it was me?"
" 'Course I did," I say, grumbling. But I didn't. I've always been told to keep away from Billy.
Billy stoops, palms stretched toward my fire. I'm not used to seeing him up close. His pants are wool; he has thick-soled shoes. His legs and feet aren't cold like mine. He never has to work.
"I found rabbit holes."
I don't say anything.
"They were so deep. Wide enough I could fit my arm in them. I tried to catch a rabbit, but I couldn't."
"Silly. Rabbits are smart. They saw you coming. Hyenas are dumb."
"What's a hyena?"
Mister Beale says a hyena is like a fox, but it lives in Africa. I don't tell Billy. I should go. I'm not supposed to talk to him.
Billy shouts, "Look." He jumps up, stands, upside down, on his hands.
"That's nothing." I bend, roll over twice, and leap like a rabbit.
"I can do this." Billy turns sideways, hops, then he's upside down, his feet, his hands, his whole body spinning like a wheel.
"Teach me," I shout.
"Tell me, then—what's a hyena?"
Stubborn, I yell, "Won't."
"Sugar. Sugar. Sugar," Billy taunts.
My hands cover my ears.
"Sugar. Sugar. Sugar."
"Stop it," I scream. I will not cry. I will not!
"I'm sorry," says Billy. "I know you hate your name."
"How'd you know?"
"I hear stories from the cooks. Manon and Annie."
"Not about you."
Indignant, I roll my eyes. Grown-ups think I'm trouble.
I look at Billy. He's a mess. Like me.
I'm wet, hair tangled, with algae sticking to my feet. Billy's clay-streaked face is cracking, his hair's limp, and his twig-crown is busted into a dozen pieces on the ground.
I point at Billy, he points at me, and we both start laughing.
"Sug—" He stops, then starts again. "You made a good fire."
"Want to play?" Billy asks.
"I thought you didn't like girls."
"Girls are okay. Pa doesn't want me to play with slaves."
"I'm not a slave. I'm free."
"Only 'cause Lincoln won. Pa says, 'Times are changing.' He doesn't like it."
"Do you like it, Billy Wills?"
Billy stares at the ground like there's money covering it.
I kick dirt into the fire. Sparks fly.
"I like you," he mumbles.
I don't believe my ears. Billy's face is red.
"You used to wear a yellow ribbon."
I touch my pigtail. Ma gave me that ribbon. I put it in her coffin.
"Look. Look what I got." Billy's palm opens. In his hand is a tube, woven red and yellow.
I pick up the tube, as long as my hand, and look through it like a telescope. I see Billy's grin.
"Isn't it pretty?"
I roll it over and over. I've never seen such a thing. It's beautiful.
"Where'd you get it?"
"Pa. He brought it from New Orleans. Try it. Put it on your fingers."
I put one index finger in one hole, then the other finger in the second hole. The tube sparkles, bridging my two fingers and hands.
I pull my fingers outward. They're stuck!
Billy is laughing, whooping, hopping from foot to foot. "Got you. Got you."
"You tricked me." I'm madder than a bee.
"Gets them every time! You should've seen my ma, twisting. My tutor turned purple!"
"Aw," I howl. My fingers are trapped. I'm pulling, hard, my fingers are red, straining. I can't use my hands. Or even wiggle my fingers. Then, I flap my arms, high and low, like a mixed-up bird. "Take it off. Take it off."
I'm wriggling, fighting like a catfish on a line.
Billy touches my arm. "Relax." His voice is soft.
He taps the tube, so hard and bright.
"Don't pull," he says. "Push."
I push my fingers, and, magically, they're free; the tube slips off, falling into Billy's hand.
"What's it called?"
"China finger trap. Pa thought I'd like it."
"Yeah. 'Specially with grown-ups. Boy, do they get mad!" He tosses the tube into the air.
I wish I had one.
"I was only playing," says Billy. "If I wasn't, I would've let you squirm all day."
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