Bernice L. McFadden, 2000
Penguin Group USA
In a debut novel that blends the rich, earthy atmosphere of the deep South and a voice imbued with spiritual grace, Bernice L. McFadden tells the story of two women: a modest, churchgoing wife and mother, and the young prostitute she befriends. "When Sugar arrives in 1950s Bigelow—waltzing down the main square of the sweltering tiny Arkansas town as if she has every right to be there—no one tosses out the welcome mat or invites her in for a Coke.
The Bigelow women hate her from the minute they lay eyes on her—on the bouncing blond wig and red-painted lips that tell them she has never known a hard day's work. All they know is they want her gone, out of their town, and away from their men. "But Sugar has traveled too far and survived too much to back down now. She parks herself in the house at #10 Grove Street, even though she feels there is something about Bigelow that is calling up the past she prayed she'd left behind. "Deep in her soul, Pearl Taylor knows what it is that Sugar feels, because it happened to her. It was the day her world shut down, the day the devil himself murdered her young daughter, Jude.
It wasn't that Pearl stopped believing in God, exactly; she just couldn't trust him the way she used to. Then Sugar moves in next door, and Pearl's life irrevocably changes. Over sweet potato pie, an unlikely friendship begins, transforming the lives of two women—and an entire community. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA
• Education—NYC Fashion College - Laboratory Institute of
Merchandising; Marymount College, Fordham University
• Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York
Bernice L. McFadden is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels, including the classic Sugar, Nowhere Is a Place, (a 2006 Washington Post Best Fiction title), and Gathering of Waters in 2012.
She is a two time Hurston/Wright award fiction finalist as well as the recipient of two fiction honor awards from the BCALA. McFadden lives in Brooklyn, New York. (From the publisher.)
Bernice L. McFadden was born, raised and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the eldest of four children and the mother of one daughter, R'yane Azsa. Ms. McFadden attended grade school at P.S. 161 in Brooklyn and Middle School at Holy Spirit, also in Brooklyn. She attended high school at St. Cyril Academy an all-girls boarding school in Danville, Pa.
In the Fall of 1983 she enrolled in the noted NYC fashion college: Laboratory Institute of Merchandising, with dreams of becoming an international clothing buyer.
She attended LIM for two semesters and then took a position at Bloomingdale's and later with Itokin, a Japanese owned retail company.
Disillusioned and frustrated with her job, she signed up for a Travel & Tourism course at Marymount College where she received a certificate of completion. After the birth of her daughter in 1988, Bernice McFadden obtained a job with Rockresorts a company then owned by the Rockefeller family.
The company was later sold and Ms. McFadden was laid off and unemployed for one year. She sights that year as the turning point in her life because during those twelve months Ms. McFadden began to dedicate herself to the art of writing. During the next nine years she held three jobs, always looking for something exciting and satisfying. Forever frustrated with corporate America and the requirements they put on their employees, Ms. McFadden enrolled at Fordham University. Her intention was to obtain a degree that would enable her to move up another rung on the corporate ladder.
She signed up for courses that concentrated on Afro-American history and literature, as well as creative writing, poetry and journalism. She credits the two years spent under the guidance of her professors as well as the years spent lost in the words of her favorite author's, to the caliber of writer she has become.
During those years, Ms. McFadden made a conscious effort to write as much as possible and began to send out hundreds of query letters to agents and publisher's attempting to sell one of her short stories or the novel she was working on.
In 1997, Ms. McFadden quit her job and dedicated seven months to re-writing the novel that would become, Sugar. In May of 1998, after depleting her savings, she took her last and final position within corporate America.
On Feb 9th, 1999, her daughter's eleventh birthday (and Alice Walker's birthday—one of Ms. McFadden's favorite author's) she sent a query letter to an agent who signed her two weeks later and the rest is literary history!
Bernice L. McFadden also writes racy, humorous fiction under the pseudonym, Geneva Holliday. (From the author's website.)
With her eponymous anti-heroine, debut novelist McFadden breaks the mold of a venerable stereotype. Here, the hooker with a heart of gold is instead a hooker with a past so tarnished no amount of polishing can change her fate. As a baby, Sugar is abandoned by her mother and raised by a trio of prostitutes who run an Arkansas bordello. Turning tricks at age 12, and leaving town four years later to try her luck in St. Louis and then Detroit, brings more degradation, along with an ever-hardening heart. Upon her mother's death in 1955, Sugar is willed a modest home in Bigelow, Ark., but when she moves into town, and supports herself the only way she knows, the female population rises in wrath against her. All except Pearl, Sugar's next-door neighbor, who more than a decade ago lost her beloved daughter, Jude, to a vicious rapist/murderer. Pearl is struck by Sugar's uncanny likeness to Jude, and is determined to become Sugar's friend in spite of vocal disapproval. Although the two women are opposites in nearly every way, they bring out the best in each other: Sugar convinces Pearl to loosen up and accompany her to a Saturday night juke joint, and Sugar promises to go to church for two months of Sundays. Hypocritical gossip spreads among the townsfolk and tension grows when it turns out that nearly every married man in Bigelow pays a visit to Sugar, leaving the apparently frigid wives planning to run Sugar out of town. Pearl gives it her best shot to transform Sugar, but both women's painful pasts come back to haunt them in a crescendo of violent reenactments, betrayals and surprising revelations leading to a poignant, bittersweet ending. While hampered by a forced and compressed backstory, a surfeit of maudlin moments and some overwriting that is inadvertently funny, this ambitious first novel will appeal to readers who can appreciate Sugar's determination to come to terms with her past and fashion a viable future.
McFadden's debut novel is an earthy slice of life in a small Southern town. When Sugar, a prostitute who never had a chance for love or a normal life, moves into the house next door to Pearl, a matron who lost her spirit after the murder of her daughter 15 years before, the two women form a bond strong enough to withstand even the most vicious gossip. But secrets from both of their pasts may prove too much even for these two compelling women, and Sugar must choose between her dreams for something better and the people she has learned to love. McFadden captures the full character of small-town life and the strengths and weaknesses of its people. This novel of friendship and loss is an excellent addition to the growing body of work by young African American writers. Recommended for all libraries. —Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L.
African-American McFadden presents a sometimes schematically plotted but sweet debut tale of an unlikely friendship between two women. Set in a fictional small town of 1950s Arkansas, the story vividly evokes the life and time of a community still haunted by racism. The people are poor, work hard, and have been so badly treated by whites that fifteen years ago when teenaged Jude Taylor was found murdered and her body horribly mutilated, it was assumed the perpetrator was a white man. Pearl, Jude's mother, never recovered from the event; she retreated into herself, dressed like an old woman, and was sexually cool to husband Joe. But when Sugar moves next door, her life begins to change. Sugar, born in a nearby town, soon scandalizes the locals because she sits naked in front of her windows and has men visitors. Pearl, reluctant to believe that Sugar is a whore, and affected by Sugar's striking resemblance to Jude, tries to make friends. She eventually wins a hardened Sugar over, and the two women share their life's stories. Sugar's mother abandoned her in a local bordello run by the black Lacey sisters; Sugar was raped there, became a whore, and then moved north. Learning that she had inherited this house, she came back to Arkansas. Pearl talks about Jude as she has never done before, lets Sugar give her a fashion makeover, and goes to a club to hear Sugar sing, in return for getting Sugar to attend church. But Sugar is beaten up by an old acquaintance named Lappy, and, though she recovers, her resolution to change her ways falters. As ends are too neatly tidied up, and as the truth comes out about Sugar's parentage and Jude's murderer, Pearl faces another loss as Sugar moves on. A gritty but heartwarming celebration of friendship by a promising new writer.
1. Sugar opens with the murder of Jude Taylor. Why do you think the author chose to open with this graphic-and horrific-scene? How did this scene set the tone for the rest of the novel? Why is Jude's murder such an integral part of the storyline?
2. When Pearl first sees Sugar, she is "struck by the familiarity of her face"(pg. 37) because it reminds her of Jude. Pearl also called Sugar by Jude's name on several occasions. What draws Pearl to Sugar besides her physical resemblance to Jude?
3. By associating with Sugar, Pearl alienates Shirley and some of the other women in Bigelow. Why do these women feel so threatened by Sugar?
4. Sugar and Pearl's friendship is an unlikely pairing. What does each one gain from the relationship?
5. At one point in the story the author writes, "Knowing each other's past helped both Pearl and Sugar. Secret pains, now told, bonded the women together tighter than anything else in this world" (pg. 125). Why do Pearl and Sugar choose to confide in one other when neither has ever done so with anyone else?
6. In the beginning of the book, the author has included this quote by Sarah Miles: "There's a little bit of hooker in every woman. A little bit of hooker and a little bit of God." What do you think of this statement? How does it pertain to the story?
7. Sugar is set mainly in the small town of Bigelow, Arkansas. What "role" does the small town play in the story? Sugar was raised in a small town by the Lacey sisters and later lived in St. Louis, Detroit, andChicago. Why does she choose to return to a small town?
8. Describe Pearl and Joe's relationship. What first drew them to one another? How would you describe their relationship when the story first begins? How does it change as the novel progresses? At the end of the story, the reader finds out that Joe is going to make a confession to Pearl. How do you think she would have reacted to the news?
9. "Pearl looked around her. She tried to imagine herself without Sugar. She didn't know who that might be, the person that existed before Sugar's arrival was buried deep into the hard, dry memory of Bigelow next to the rotting bones of her baby girl. How could she be anything more with the loss of two in her life now?" (pg. 218). Why does Pearl feel so bereft by Sugar's departure? Do you think she sensed that Sugar was more than just a neighbor and friend to her and Joe?
10. One reviewer stated that "Sugar speaks of what is real." What aspects of the novel do you think the reviewer is referring to?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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