Sugar by Bernice McFadden is the story of a world-weary prostitute who moves to a small town in Arkansas and forms an unlikely and transformational friendship with her neighbor. Sugar Lacey arrives in Bigelow, Arkansas looking for, if not change, then a break from her life. Strutting into town sporting makeup, wigs, high heels, and vibrant big city clothing makes the local women uncomfortable with Sugar’s presence. But one woman, Pearl Taylor, makes it her duty to befriend Sugar when she moves into the house next door.
A few years back I picked up the author’s other book The Book of Harlan because I thought the cover was pretty cool. I read the book and while I thought the story was just okay, I did enjoy the author’s writing style. That book wasn’t for me but I didn’t take that to mean that others wouldn’t think differently or that I might not enjoy other titles by the author.
My problem with The Book of Harlan was mostly with the main character, Harlan, who felt unoriginal. But the supporting characters and the overall story were interesting while the writing felt sharp. McFadden’s descriptions of scenes and people felt incredibly vivid. So while I wrote off The Book of Harlan, I didn’t dismiss the idea of reading other books by the author.
There are other creatives where I dislike just as many if not more of their projects than I like but will still check out new releases if their stuff is good when it’s on point or I think they’re talented. If I check out two or three things and they’re just whack that’s different. But I had a sense while reading The Book of Harlan that while I didn’t thoroughly enjoy that book I might like other titles by the author as I did enjoy her writing style.
I later came across Sugar and after reading the summary thought it might be worth giving the author another shot. I was more than glad that I did. From the very beginning, I was drawn into the story by the characters as they were incredibly interesting. And as with The Book of Harlan, McFadden once again mesmerized me with the way she described scenes and people.
Now before we get into things, I’m going to completely be honest here and give you fair warning that this is a book that deals with adult themes. The main character and a few others are sex workers and while the focus of the book is not prostitution it is how some of the women support themselves. As such the book can be quite graphic in discussing events. It’s not pornography but if you’re uncomfortable with topics of sex, sexuality, etc. then this probably isn’t the book for you.
It should go without saying that if you decide to read via audiobook this is not the title to listen to with MeeMaw, Pop-Pop, and the kids in the car. For example, usually, I pass good books that I read along to my mom for her to check out. For the time being, I let her know that I’ve put the kibosh on her reading this book because I think it’s too adult for her.
When reading I don’t have to like the characters nor do they have to be paragons of virtue because imperfections can sometimes add to the story. Within reason, characters can even sometimes be “bad people”. But the characters that resonate with me the most tend to have something about them. There’s some complexity where I care about them and the things that happen to them regardless of their flaws. And I don’t necessarily have to like a character but I need to find them interesting.
In this book, the main character Sugar isn’t the greatest person, or at least not based on first appearances. She can be a bit crude and harsh. But as the story unfolds and you gain an understanding of her life you also come to understand her demeanor and how she came to be this way.
Sugar is in her early 30s and Pearl may be in her 50s or 60s by the time the two meet in small town Bigelow, Arkansas. The present in the story is the 1950s but looking back over the lives of Pearl and Sugar covers the 1940s as well with a few moments even earlier.
When the book opens, Sugar is just walking into town. She causes quite a stir because this is a small town in Arkansas where everyone knows everyone and for the most part a lot of these people were born and raised in this community. Others moved to the area during and after the war in search of work. But for the most part, because the town is so small, everyone knows everyone and with that everyone is in everyone’s business. When a stranger pops up in town, especially one that’s dressed quite differently from the residents they are going to stand out.
Bigelow is located in the South and while the town is small it’s not exactly rural. The people live rather simple lives and dress much the same. The women might wear high heels but they’re quite conservative with their style of dress, nothing too fancy. Many of the town’s residents haven’t been out of town let alone visited a big city. So when Sugar comes into town wearing a tight dress with a blonde wig, makeup, high-heeled shoes, and fishnet stockings it attracts attention. Jealousy and judgment from the women and let’s just say interest from the men.
Sugar is described as being quite tall around six feet with very dark almost jet-black skin. She’s a very striking woman with a full-bodied shape who would stand out in a room and definitely stands out in this town. The women are threatened by this because Sugar’s appearance and obvious display of sex appeal inspire insecurity. There’s a wealth of curiosity as everyone is trying to get into this woman’s business to figure out who she is, where she came from, and whatever other details they can learn about her. The townsfolk are trying to get to know her just for nosiness’ sake.
When Sugar arrived in town, she’d already made arrangements to move into a house next door to Pearl, a woman that seems to be her complete opposite. Pearl is a churchgoing housewife with deep ties in the community. She’s been happily married to the same man for several years. Pearl and her husband have two grown sons but have also endured life-altering trauma. 14 or 15 years earlier, their only daughter, Jude, was brutally murdered. Given the time and living in the South, being a Black girl with parents who weren’t wealthy meant that local law enforcement wasn’t willing to do much of an investigation.
Jude’s loss was devastating to her parents and the Bigelow community but while the other residents have been able to move on, Pearl and her family have been living with their grief. Pearl in particular has been struggling. We get a glimpse back to the time immediately after Jude’s murder when Pearl was going through it as the two had been very close. There was the devastation of losing her only daughter but it was made even worse knowing she’d endured brutality before dying. The heartbreak of that loss was compounded by living all of these years not knowing what happened.
When you lose a family member or someone to whom you’re especially close, it causes pain and a sense of loss that doesn’t go away. With time you hopefully learn how to cope and continue moving through life. But despite the years that have gone by Pearl hasn’t made peace with Jude’s death. The murder of Jude in some ways has killed Pearl as well because while she’s physically alive, she’s stopped living and trying to enjoy life.
She carries the loss of her daughter around with her, which I think would be understandable. God forbid I ever have that experience. As I’ve mentioned in other discussions, the loss of anyone is heartbreaking. But it seems especially unnatural for a parent to have to bury their child and especially in this instance where Pearl has lost Jude under such devastating circumstances.
By the time Sugar arrives in Bigelow, Pearl is outwardly living but is hidden away inside herself. There are little hints within her personal life that show she’s not coping with the loss very well. As we get to know Sugar and the two women tentatively begin to develop a friendship, we also get an understanding of how Sugar became the person she is. Despite outward appearances, Sugar isn’t living a fun or full life either. There’s a similar emptiness within her as well.
Sugar was given up by her mother when she was just a baby and never knew her father. She was born and spent her early life in a similar small town not too far away. Sugar was raised by a group of three sisters who had grown up in a dysfunctional home that normalized the sex trade for them. They in turn created a vice spot within their home replete with gambling, liquor, and sex work. The environment had not been positive for their development and it was much the same for Sugar.
Growing up in an environment where a roof was over her head and food in her belly was positive. But Sugar didn’t receive the love and nurturing care that children need to help them develop during their youth. The sisters did the best that they could but given their problematic upbringings weren’t properly equipped to raise Sugar. They were unable to help this young child navigate the world and her feelings related to not knowing her father and feeling abandoned by her mother.
To be clear the sisters didn’t mistreat Sugar nor did they push or guide her into prostitution. But rather her internal emptiness and growing up in a brothel weren’t the best combination for childhood development. Just being in that environment exposed Sugar to unscrupulous people and heartbreaking situations that drew her into a life of prostitution. It’s a bit like young men who grow up in environments where their male role models are involved in crime and go to prison. Without positive examples and guidance to do otherwise, how many children would be able to figure out and put themselves on a different track?
In bits and pieces, we get Sugar’s life story leading up to how she ended up in this town living next door to Pearl. Their relationship as neighbors gets off to a rocky start which makes their later friendship all the more unexpected. Sugar has had a very rough life made more difficult by people’s assumptions. She’s been unfairly beaten down by life and hurt by people. By the time she meets Pearl, Sugar is very closed off and not open to interacting with other people or forming relationships. Sadly from a very young age, men have viewed Sugar as a sexual object and women don’t take any time to get to know her before passing judgment.
Before Sugar’s arrival, Pearl was given a heads up that a new woman was coming to town. This information came by way of her pastor for whom she has a great deal of respect. The pastor gives Pearl the task of welcoming this woman into the town and bringing her into the fold of the church. Out of respect for the pastor, Pearl takes the responsibility seriously and goes out of her way to make a real effort to befriend Sugar. Pearl’s persistent but genuinely innocent curiosity allows her to get through the minefield of Sugar’s emotional defenses.
I found myself liking Pearl from the very start and while it took longer for me to warm up to Sugar I adored both equally by the book’s end. It was heartbreaking as their backstories unfolded. We learn about the murder of Pearl’s daughter and how it destroyed her world to the degree that she still hasn’t recovered from the devastation. But we also learn about Sugar feeling forced into selling her body and having sexual contact with various men in whom she has no interest. She would prefer to do something else but the attempts she’s made to change her life have been met with people refusing to let her move on.
Sugar struggles to find peace and her place in the world. She was born into her life with no choice in who her parents would be or how she would grow up. Lacking the stability of a family and knowing nothing of her mother or father, she has no idea where or who she comes from. She grew up knowing that her mother dropped her off at these people’s home and then found herself in this life of sex work. Even when trying to pursue other things her aspirations would be cut short by her being trapped based on others’ expectations.
Yet, her experience is a testament to the reality that there are certainly people in the world who do bad things. But there are also good people in the world and we might not always accurately identify them based on first impressions. These are fictional characters but I felt for Sugar especially during interactions that she had with some characters that were judgemental or taking advantage of her situation. But it made the interactions she had with the few people she came across who showed her genuine concern and affection incredibly special. Although they were wayward, I would count the three sisters in that group as well as an older woman she befriends. There are many hardships in her life but they made the bright moments meaningful.
The episode of her meeting the older woman and spending time with her and her granddaughter was beautiful. McFadden does an incredible job of creating a sense of warmth in describing the experience. It’s one of my favorite parts of the book.
I’ve never been and hope to never be involved with sex work and I don’t think I know anyone who has directly exchanged sexual favors or services for money. So admittedly what I know of the industry is based on second and third-hand information. To my understanding as the women are typically vulnerable and somewhat ignored at best and looked down upon at worst, it makes this line of work very dangerous.
I’m fairly laissez-faire about how other people live their lives but I firmly believe sex work of this nature takes an emotional toll. There’s social exclusion and ostracism but people might find other random stuff to judge and hate you for anyway. I think the bigger issue is what it takes from you as a person. Nobody can convince me that having sex with random people to whom you are not attracted and some of whom mistreat you is healthy for your psyche. Sugar isn’t some cheesy cautionary tale but does drive home the point that you probably shouldn’t aspire to be a prostitute.
Yet, it makes clear that everyone has things that have happened in their lives that influenced them to become the person they are. And we should maybe be a bit more considerate, patient, and willing to extend grace rather than judgment. That doesn’t mean you condone their actions but rather shouldn’t sit in judgment of people with regards to where they are now in life without fully understanding where they’ve come from. I can’t tell you the many times and the multiple ways in which my heart broke for Sugar.
Books and movies don’t have to be fully happy go lucky for me but I also can’t deal with them being thoroughly doom and gloom. For example, I saw The Pursuit of Happyness in theaters and bawled my eyes out but will likely never watch it again. But there was balance here which kept the book from feeling overwhelming. Although Sugar goes through a lot in life some of the relationships she forms along the way, particularly her friendship with Pearl helps to even things out. To be clear, the low points get basal but the highs feel out of this world. It is an emotional rollercoaster.
I’m not a religious person but I know some forms of faith include an aspect of outreach where they try to spread the word and bring people into their faith. Pearl has been given this responsibility by her pastor to reach out to Sugar and bring her to the church. In a sense, Pearl is sent out to reconnect Sugar with humanity which she does. But while Pearl has lived in closer proximity with others and has relationships she’s been disconnected from herself and her most intimate connections.
Pearl’s relationships are shown to have been superficial with her just going through the motions. Forming a friendship with Sugar doesn’t just help Sugar reconnect with other people, it helps Pearl do the same. Without noticing it, they’ve both needed nurturing and their connection allows them both to begin working to address the voids that are within.
I’ve spent most of my life in New York City and now live in the suburbs of Atlanta so I don’t have personal experience with living in a small town. But from what I’ve gathered speaking to other people who have lived in small towns everyone tends to be in everyone else’s business. They might not be so bold as to directly approach the topic of conversation but rather gossip and peek out of windows.
In a sense, it reminded me of my family in Queens, where several family members own homes on the same block and have gotten to know their neighbors over the years. It’s nice on the one hand because you know your neighbors and it feels like a community but on the other hand there is a lot of gossiping and peeking through window curtains. Just all manners of nosiness, though to be fair it seems to mostly be some of my relatives minding their neighbors’ business through the window. Now that’s just one block with about 20 houses so I could only imagine a whole town where residents have spent their entire lives and know each other’s families going back for multiple generations.
In a small town like Bigelow, the residents know each other and can immediately spot a newcomer. It’s somewhat of a country town where the people dress quite simply so Sugar stands out with her relatively ostentatious clothing. Sugar’s demeanor and being different in a town like this attracts sexual interest from the men and thus jealousy from the women. It upsets the balance of things which causes an initially passive-aggressive hostility on the part of the women.
A lot of the people consider themselves to be religious, which they are in a sense because they attend church every Sunday. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that a lot of these supposedly upstanding citizens who present themselves as paragons of virtue are no such thing. And ironically some of those who are the most judgmental have secrets of their own which whether wrong or right others might also judge them.
Pearl is probably one of the few people who has genuinely lived a life in line with what she proclaims to be her religious beliefs. That’s not to say that she doesn’t initially sit in judgment of Sugar. But it’s more so that while Pearl doesn’t understand Sugar’s lifestyle she doesn’t think Sugar’s lifestyle automatically makes her a bad person.
Yet, while Pearl’s initial interactions with Sugar were a bit more positive than the other women they still felt a bit lacking in boundaries. I understood Pearl’s perspective but her approach and the questions she asked Sugar at times came across as entitled. Sugar was grown and didn’t owe her an explanation. I might not have agreed with her actions or her lifestyle but Pearl didn’t have grounds to demand any answers from this woman. But unlike the other people in town who were also equally curious, Pearl at least made some effort to try to get to know Sugar as a person before making any demands on her. She also became willing to share her secrets in exchange.
With people gossiping about Sugar, some of it is from a perspective of her not living in the manner that they think she should. Some of the disapproval comes from people feeling threatened by her. With some of the women, it’s a matter of her living at odds with their religious beliefs. But with others, it’s a matter of them thinking she will take the attention that they usually get from the men in town.
Many of the women are married but some have boyfriends or long-running situationships and insecurities make them worried the men in their lives might take up an interest in Sugar. Come to find out that these women are concerned because they know what they’ve been up to in the distant or recent past.
They knew well enough to be concerned about their partners possibly being interested in Sugar. This isn’t because Sugar introduced infidelity to the town but rather because many of these same women had been mistresses in the past. That might not be how they ended up with their current partner but they know the possibilities from experience.
There’s also at least one woman who wasn’t a prostitute but enjoyed the attention of men who were in relationships with other women. She’s angry because Sugar came into town and muscled in on her territory of being the trifling woman in town. She’s used to being the center of negative attention in town and when Sugar arrives with her big-city outfits, she can’t compete.
Sugar is being herself and doesn’t feel compelled to hide so she’s blatantly forward and puts her lifestyle on display. Unlike some of the other women, she doesn’t try to sugarcoat or hide what she does. She dresses in a manner that draws attention to her profession but it’s second nature at this point.
The townsfolk are upset because Sugar goes against their expectations. On a basic level, it’s because of the perceived suggestive manner in which she dresses. But on a deeper level, it’s because Sugar is described as being a very dark-skinned woman. Taking that into context with the time she doesn’t fit the standard of what is being promoted as beautiful. For this woman, in particular, to dress in a manner that attracts attention while going completely against the grain of what society has told these women is womanhood and attractive is upsetting.
They are insecure because Sugar makes them look at themselves and re-evaluate their self-image and self-worth. What they’ve been told is how a woman should present herself to be considered attractive is shown as not being a steadfast rule. Supposedly Sugar doesn’t fit the ideal of beauty with regards to her complexion and features but there’s still something about her that men also find attractive. They might be “good” upstanding women who cook, clean, raise kids, and follow all the other rules for being a wife and/or lady. But here’s this woman who comes along and doesn’t cook, clean, or show much interest in children.
They’re killing themselves to follow the rules while Sugar does what she wants. The very same men for which they do all of this stuff to get and keep their attention are also interested in this other woman who’s doing none of it. She’s doing everything and then some that they’ve been told not to do. She’s not even trying to live up to the standards that they follow but she still has access to the same men that they do.
Women within Bigelow place a high value on being married even if the man is sorry and raggedy. It’s a major part of their identity and Sugar poses a threat to all they hold dear which includes their romantic relationships and sense of self. Honestly, they’re all losing at life but it makes for a great story.
While reading Sugar there’s a lot of judgments made between worthy and unworthy people. In this case, you have the church folk and the longtime residents of Bigelow that have deemed themselves worthy because they’re supposedly “good Christian” people. There are multiple instances of references being made that Sugar is not a good person. She’s regarded as one of “those types of people”. Sugar is referred to in a manner that would suggest that she’s an unsavory character and thus disposable.
There’s an ongoing contrast between who is good or bad but as the story goes along it’s revealed that the line between the two is not as bold and clear a divider as the self-styled good people would have you believe. They’ve all stepped across that line at some point and have done things in their lives for which others would judge them. In some cases just as harshly and lacking in compassion as they’ve judged Sugar.
Having this conversation about so-called good girls versus bad girls or good people versus bad people is a moot point as the reality is that there’s just good or bad and people are capable of both. A person who has done wrong previously in their life doesn’t have to be defined by that for the rest of their lives as they can change. What they’ve done is an action but it doesn’t have to be the entirety of who they are as a person.
Because of Sugar’s line of work people deem her as being unworthy. Some of the men in town are desperately sexually interested in pursuing Sugar and avail themselves of her services. They use her to fill a void within themselves and their lives at night but then feel ashamed in the light of day. Because Sugar is a prostitute, they don’t want anyone to know that they’ve been soliciting her services as it doesn’t fit the image of how they want to be viewed by the residents of Bigelow.
Some of the men believe that because they’re paying for Sugar’s services it gives them the right to use and treat her as they please. Unfortunately, in a sense, this leads to Sugar being savagely attacked in a manner eerily similar to Jude. Bigelow’s residents contrast their perceptions of Sugar’s and Jude’s character. The assault and murder of Jude were viewed as a tragedy because she was seen as an innocent little girl. But because of who Sugar is and the community’s animosity, her attack is viewed with far less sympathy.
Despite the circumstances of these attacks being quite similar, the townspeople draw a line between the two. The murder of Jude is regarded as being wrong not because she was a human being and no one had the right to take her life. But rather because she was viewed as being a good little girl with parents and a family who loved her. When an act of violence is visited upon Sugar, the people of Bigelow, excluding Pearl and Joe, are less sympathetic and compassionate. This isn’t necessarily because they think she deserved it but because they regard her as belonging to no one. They think that because of her line of work and the life she leads, the attack on her is not right but is to be expected.
The irony is that the community regarded Jude as being valuable because she was innocent and the child of their neighbors. Yet, Sugar’s childhood innocence was ended and her introduction to the sex trade came about due to a man who did not value her as a person never mind being a child.
The reality is that they’re both human beings and had an act of violence committed against them. As the reader, you know the details of Sugar’s life but within the story, only Pearl knows about her experiences. Just like everyone else, whether they’ve been through hard times or not she didn’t deserve to be assaulted. Knowing her full story you realize just how thin the dividing line is between her innocence and Jude’s. Once upon a time with different circumstances surrounding her birth who knows what Sugar might have become. But she was born into the life she was born into and went down the path that she did but it doesn’t make her life any less worthy.
Also take into consideration that all these years later, there’s never been a real investigation into Jude’s murder. Bigelow is described as being a predominantly Black town. But outside of Bigelow within the broader White society, Jude was deemed as being a little Black girl from a small country town. Making matters worse, her parents weren’t wealthy so her death was deemed as not deserving a thorough investigation.
The police department regarded her life as not being worth the hassle of trying to bring her murderer to justice. She was viewed as being disposable and no one cared because she didn’t belong to anyone from this other part of society. Her murder only mattered to the people within Bigelow and her parents and brothers who felt the loss most acutely.
And now all these years later Sugar is living within this community that has experienced loss. Yet their judgmental ideology blinds them to their hypocrisy in these situations. They lamented Jude being murdered and her death going relatively unnoticed in the eye of the law. But these same people fail to see that the assault on Jude and the belief that it would be futile to go to the police is a reflection of the situation that led to Jude’s murder remaining unsolved. Where the local White community ignored Jude’s assault and death here it is that you have this Black community within Bigelow choosing to ignore the attack on Sugar and deeming it unworthy of investigation.
Excluding Pearl and Joe, no one cares because they don’t value Sugar. There’s a reflection of sorts within this Black community that has experienced loss before where the body of a Black girl was devalued. You then have the body of this Black woman, and the story of her body being devalued throughout her life. And now as an adult, she is deemed unworthy and undeserving of protection and concern by this community, despite them having experienced a similar loss. The whole book was a very powerful commentary on how the lives of Black women and girls are valued or devalued.
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- The Book of Harlan [Book Review]
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