Monday, March 14, 2011

Nonfiction Monday Review: Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

Wow, this book has been getting a ton of praise recently - including making the shortlist for the LA Times Book Prize in the YA lit category. So I knew I had to check it out.

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and ScienceMarc Aronson and Maina Budhos both have family connections to the sugar trade - Aronson's family worked with beet sugar in Russia, while Budhos' family, originally from India, worked in Guyana. This personal connection is an early indication that the story of sugar is going to take us around the globe. Aronson and Budhos trace sugar from its probably origins in New Guinea, through the Middle East to Europe, and then spend the bulk of the book looking at how sugar drove the slave trade in South America and the Caribbean. As a USian, for whom the story of slavery was tied to cotton, it was eye opening to see how slavery influenced a different cash crop.

There are also interesting facts about sugar peppered throughout the book. Sugar is the only flavor humans like naturally - we acquire our tastes for salty, bitter, and other flavors. While the story Aronson and Budhos share pretty much ends with slavery in the US (going on just a bit longer to look at the indentured servitude of Indians, as well as the Asians of many countries who were brought in to Hawaii), there are tantalizing hints that the story of sugar isn't over - we've developed high fructose corn syrup as a replacement for cane sugar, and artificial sweeteners like Splenda. I think, rather than spending so much time going over the horrors of slavery again, I would have liked to see more about the modern quest for cheap sweeteners. While slavery is certainly an important part of the story of sugar, since Aronson and Budhos say in their afterword that this is a book intended for high school students I feel like rehashing a lot of the stories of slavery that aren't too different from accounts of life in the United States, with which US students will already be familiar, dragged down parts of the book.

Another small thing that I feel is missing from the book is any account of the Caribbean natives who would have been displaced by these sugar plantations. The way the book is now, it seems like the islands were discovered as empty, pristine places, perfect for growing sugar cane. I know initially native populations were used as slaves for the Europeans - by the time the Europeans got around to growing sugar, had the native populations already been exhausted by other slave work and disease? I certainly don't know - the only mention of natives doesn't even merit a listing in the index, as they are just briefly mentioned as members of the maroon population in Brazil - communities formed outside of the plantations by escaped slaves, natives, and even some white Europeans.

There were also two small passages that dragged down the quality of the book for me, because they are phrased...awkwardly, to put them in the most positive light possible.

First, on page 39:
You might be lucky enough to be trained as a specialist - the person who watched the cane grow and who kept an eye out for when the plants were ripe and ready to be cut. Special knowledge did not make a slave any less a slave - you were neither freed or paid. But perhaps some of the enslaved people had the personal pleasure of realizing that they had knowledge that the plantation owners needed.
I checked to see if there was a note in the back explaining where this notion of pleasure in slavery came from - if there was a slave narrative that had someone taking some form of pleasure in their work, this would be a much more credible statement. But since no such note exists, it seems rather tone deaf to talk about taking pleasure in having knowledge that's going to benefit the person that keeps you as property.

Then again, on page 70:
Africans were at the heart of the great change in the economy, indeed in the lives of people throughout the world. Africans were the true global citizens - adjusting to a new land, a new religion, even to other Africans they would never have et in their homelands. Their labor made the Age of Sugar - the Industrial Age - possible. We should not see the enslaved people simply as victims, but rather as actors - as the heralds of the interconnected world in which we all live today.
I think this one is worse for me than page 39 was. The slaves in the Caribbean had no choice in their situation - they were kidnapped from Africa, and their ability to act freely was removed. The enslaved Africans rarely got to enjoy the fruits of their labor - working in sugar cane was dangerous and claimed so many lives that once the Atlantic slave trade was abolished slaves weren't reproducing fast enough to maintain or increase the slave population numbers, so the sugar workers weren't usually the ones buying their freedom and then going on to be consumers of sugar (or any other goods harvested by the hands of slaves). Edit 3/14/11 at 11pm: Author Marc Aronson has posted a comment further explaining these passages.

This is a worthwhile book for those interested in another aspect of the dark history of slavery - I just had to point out those two instances because they left me feeling uncomfortable. In both instances I get the points that Aronson and Budhos are trying to make - I just think they end up falling a little short of their goal, as both of these passages almost seem to soften the tragedy that slavery is.

Nonfiction Monday

This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Chapter Book of the Day. Be sure to stop by and check out the other great nonfiction titles highlighted this week!


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