Charley Bordelon needs a fresh start. She’s 34, widowed, and barely making it as an inner-city art teacher in Los Angeles. So when her father dies and leaves her a sugar cane farm in Louisiana, Charley packs up her feisty 11-year-old daughter in a car that should have been sold for scrap and leaves California for good.
The setup for Natalie Baszile’s debut novel is a familiar one: one person’s quest to find life’s true calling, against all odds. Baszile pulls it off. “Queen Sugar” delivers complex characters, a hint of bayou black magic and an ever-present undertow of race and patriarchy as an African-American woman bets her life on an 800-acre dream in an industry she knows nothing about.
Baszile’s writing is refreshingly straightforward and easy. Dialogue doesn’t drip into the overwashed drawl that so often infuses stories set in the Deep South. Her characters are as memorable as their sometimes contradictory names.
There’s the brash grandmother, Miss Honey, who has taken to casting spells and judgmental tsk-tsking even as she provides stability and shelter for Charley and her daughter. There’s Charley’s troubled half-brother, Ralph Angel, who is haunted by demons and whose arrival in Louisiana threatens to upend Charley’s already colossal attempt to get the cane crop planted and harvested to avoid foreclosure.
But the arc of the story moves through Charley, who must learn to trust her instincts while putting her fate into the hands of a retired farmer named Prosper Denton, a man of few words but great wisdom.
The confidence and intimacy of “Queen Sugar” come from its parallels with the author’s life story. Baszile’s father left Louisiana in 1954 and headed to California to escape segregation. Baszile, who earned a degree in African-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, traveled to Louisiana, where she listened to family stories and spent time working in the sugar cane fields.
Details gleaned through those experiences help create a story where readers can feel the aching muscles and sweat-drenched shirts, and cheer on Charley and Prosper Denton as they race against time, weather and white land owners who wish to see them fail.
With such a captivating first novel, Baszile has established herself as a bright new author worth keeping an eye on.
Jackie Crosby is a reporter at the Star Tribune.