"Queen Sugar"

This is the debut novel of a graduate of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Baszile is a writer to watch!

There are three fascinating aspects to this novel: the setting is the American south in the 21st century, the subject is the growing of sugar cane, and the author is an African American woman.

Charlotte, a California girl who grew up surfing in an ethnically diverse community, inherits 800 acres of land in Louisiana. She relocates to her father's ancestral home to whip the neglected sugar cane fields into shape. Charley finds that attitudes towards black women are different in Louisiana from what they were in California.

Baszile's writing style flows easily, and there are beautiful passages around every corner. After Charley's brother, Ralph Angel, is fired from yet another job, "He lay his head on the [steering] wheel. He felt himself falling through the blanket of damp leaves and steamy humus; through the horizons of loam, through clay and bedrock, and finally through the fire."

Two characters in particular are deftly drawn and deeply felt. Miss Honey is Charley's grandmother. She tolerates no opinion contrary to her own, not even from her grown children and grandchildren, but she is blind to Ralph Angel's faults. Ralph Angel is a tortured soul who truly seems to lack the ability to recognize the source of his problems. His character is so well portrayed that the reader isn't sure if he should hate or pity Ralph Angel.

Baszile's inexperience in writing a novel did show in a few places when small plot points were missing or undeveloped. Ralph Angel left his wife dead in a crack house. The reader never finds out how the body was discovered or her death investigated.

Charley was concerned that her daughter, Micah, could make friends and feel at home in Louisiana. They arrive during the summer. The reader expects to hear about Micah's first few days at the new school when classes begin in the fall, but all he finds is a mention of a sleepover Micah plans for herself and some classmates.

The few faults in this debut novel are easily overlooked since the story itself, and the writing are so strong. Natalie Baszile is a welcome addition to the fellowship of American authors.