Queen Sugar/Natalie Baszile: Reflections

Monday, April 21, 2014

I meet this beautiful woman named Natalie Baszile. She's just published her first book—Queen Sugar—with Pamela Dorman of Viking. Its cover is almost as pretty as she is. I buy into Natalie's allure (now that was easy) and I happily buy her book (simple as snap).

Then, in bits and pieces (because that's my life right there, all bits and pieces), I read this book about a widow named Charley Bordelon and her daughter named Micah, who leave California for Louisiana to take on a late father's gift—eight hundred acres of sugarcane.

Eight hundred acres of sugarcane. No how-to book. No extra funds. Hardly any working machines. And nobody but Charley and Micah and some Louisiana family to turn to when the going gets tough.

The going will get tough.

Well-researched, lovingly imagined, Queen Sugar is a sweep-you-in story. Charley is a woman we understand, but also a woman we admire—for taking the unknown on, for being honest with herself, for staring out across an endless field and daring to believe not just in the land but (eventually) in herself. Baszile is a seamless storyteller. She takes her readers not just to the land, but into its depths. Her earth is not just topography, but taste:
Charley raised the dirt to her mouth again. She sniffed: wood smoke, grass, damp like a sidewalk after it rained. She tasted: grit, fine as ground glass, chocolate, and what? Maybe ash? She closed her eyes as the soil dissolved over her tongue, and slowly, slowly, almost like a good wine, the soil began to tell its story. She tasted the muck, and the peat, and the years of composted leaves, the branches and vines that had been recently plowed under, and the faint sweetness the cane left behind. She swallowed: a moldy aftertaste she knew would stay on her tongue for the rest of the afternoon.
Lovely, right? But look, too, at Baszile's ability to write of water, towboats, a wheelhouse. I respect the specificity here.
Amazing how quickly the barge moved. It was closer now. The engine rumble sent larger ripples, and across the water, Ralph Angel could see the captain high up in the towboat's wheelhouse, his small white face like a speck of white sugar behind the big glass window. As it approached, the barge sucked water into its enormous hull so that the current up where Ralph Angel sat seemed to flow in reverse and the water level actually dropped. Water hyacinths and lilies clumped together in the backwards flow and even up ahead, in the barge slip, the water seemed to be draining away. 
What's hard about writing? Everything. What takes time? Getting the details and every single sentence right. Though Queen Sugar is a debut novel, it is also a most-self-assured novel. The work of a writer who knows precisely what she's doing.


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