Having freedom in a legal sense doesn’t always mean you’re free. That statement was especially true for Southern slaves freed as a result of the Civil War. Although these men, women and children couldn’t be forced to work any longer, that didn’t keep plantation owners from paying wages, and then charging rent, food costs and other fees that kept the workers forever indebted. This is the reality of life for the characters in Sugar, the powerful new novel by Coretta Scott King Honor Book recipient Jewell Parker Rhodes. This group of men and women, including a 10-year-old orphan named Sugar, live and work on Louisiana’s River Road plantation, harvesting sugar cane and doing what they must to survive.

Sugar isn’t content with this life, however. She longs to play with other children, meet new people and not work from sunup to sundown. Sugar doesn’t always follow the rules, either. She befriends the white plantation owner’s son, Billy, and escapes on adventures with him that break every rule and boundary set for them both. It is not until the plantation owner brings in Chinese laborers, though, that Sugar’s indomitable spirit and unique outlook on life are most appreciated.

This forced immigration of Chinese workers to Southern plantations is a little-known fact in American history. Rhodes takes this glossed-over event and adds human faces to it. Sugar, Mister Wills, Beau and Master Liu are just a few of the many characters young readers will come to know and better understand. It is Sugar’s story, however, as a strong-willed, independent and tolerant child that will have the greatest impact. With compelling characters and suspenseful storytelling, this is well-crafted historical fiction that will appeal to anyone who loves a good story.

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