Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sugar Changed the World

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Space, Slavery, Freedom and Science
by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

published by Clarion Books
176 pages

Publisher's description:

When this award-winning husband-and-wife team discovered that they each had sugar in their family history, they were inspired to trace the globe-spanning story of the sweet substance and to seek out the voices of those who led bitter sugar lives. The trail ran like a bright band from religious ceremonies in India to Europe's Middle Ages, then on to Columbus, who brought the first cane cuttings to the Americas. Sugar was the substance that drove the bloody slave trade and caused the loss of countless lives but it also planted the seeds of revolution that led to freedom in the American colonies, Haiti, and France. With songs, oral histories, maps, and over 80 archival illustrations, here is the story of how one product allows us to see the grand currents of world history in new ways.

My comments:

I was expecting a micro-history of sugar when I first began reading, which isn't exactly what I got. The title is accurate when it says "sugar changed the world," and that is really is the subject of the book - how sugar changed the world. Aronson and Budhos recount in the introduction how their ancestral connections to sugar (Aronson' has a connection to the European beet sugar industry, and Budhos' great-grandparents made a living on a sugar plantation in Guyana) spurred them to research and write the book.

The bulk of the book is divided into four parts. The first part does a nice job of describing how sugar spread through Asia and then Europe. Part two describes the hell of living and working on a sugar plantation. There are many excellent illustrations and photographs in this section that provide a portrait of plantation life, as well as a few maps that show the flow of slaves from Africa to the New World.

Part three describes how people (including slaves in the Caribbean, Colonists in New England, and citizens in England and France) began to fight for freedom. This section was a little confusing to me at times. For instance, when it jumped from discussing a rebellion in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) to the English invasion of Jamaica I was a bit lost at first. In part four, the authors return to their family connections and how change came to the sugar industry (and the world) through social reform and scientific discoveries like the development of beet sugar.

The back end materials include a time line, web guide to color images (many of the black and white images the book are available in color online), source notes, bibliography, list of websites about sugar and an index. There's also an essay, "How We Research and Wrote This Book' that is addressed to teachers and librarians rather than young readers. Assuming the book is intended for the young readers that the authors refer to in this essay, I wondered whether this is the best arena for it.

The acknowledgments recognize several indispensable works that the pair used in their research. These are a boon for ambitious readers who are curious to dive deeper into the history and impact of sugar.

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