SUGAR IN THE BLOOD: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire
By Andrea Stuart
Knopf, 384 pp., illustrated, $27.95
George Ashby, Andrea Stuart’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, left England in the 1630s for Barbados, part of a “vast redistribution of life across the globe” that included Britons leaving home voluntarily and Africans taken violently from theirs. These migrations built an empire, birthed new industries, and left behind a legacy of racial inequality. At the heart of this strange new world, Stuart argues, was sugar, raised and harvested on England’s favorite colony, Barbados. From its early days as a “volatile, transient, hyper-masculine” community, Barbados grew into a stratified society ruled by a tiny minority of plantation owners; perpetually fearful of revolts, they controlled their slave laborers with unyielding brutality. Planters also fathered children with slave women, engendering a new population of mixed-race people who would complicate the rigid racial hierarchy in Barbados — and become author Stuart’s ancestors.
Partly a narrative of one family’s complicated tree, partly a meditation on larger historical forces, “Sugar in the Blood” is wholly satisfying. Stuart tells a sweeping story freighted with devastating detail — the way visitors noticed white Barbadians’ ability to tune out the “terrible, desperate screams” of slaves being punished — and thoughtfully imagines her ancestors’ lives. Slavery existed in nearly every society in the world, centuries before the so-called Age of Exploration, but as Stuart points out, the trans-Atlantic slave trade invented racism as we know it. More than three centuries later, Andrea and her parents reversed George Ashby’s journey, moving to England in the 1970s. “My colour still enters the room before I do,” Stuart writes, an everlasting aftertaste of “sugar’s sickening by-product.”
WHITE DOG FELL FROM THE SKY
By Eleanor Morse
Viking, 354 pp., $27.95
In this novel of black and white Africa, set in 1977 Botswana, the point of view is handed off between characters like a baton from one runner to the next, each providing one crucial part of the whole. First up is Isaac, a black South African man who’s been forced to flee across the border after witnessing a friend’s murder by white South African police. Alone and destitute, he befriends a stray dog who follows him as he stumbles through his new life — formerly a medical student, Isaac finds work as a gardener for one of the expats who’ve come to Botswana to help manage the newly independent country. Isaac’s American employer is Alice, unhappily married and sad about her childlessness. As the two lonely souls become friends, the book unfolds into stories both tragic and transcendent.
Eleanor Morse writes with sympathy and precision, sensitive to the dislocations of race and class — the grave imbalance of power — that dictated life for Africans in the ‘70s. For Isaac, apartheid has framed everything (“Heaven help you if you set your black foot on sacred white ground,” he thinks while walking in his new neighborhood); Alice is white and therefore privileged, but her life is circumscribed by gender and complicated by her status as a foreigner. At times Morse’s sprawling story threatens to go shapeless, but at its heart are the simplest human needs, especially this “small, uncertain thing” we call love.
THE ATLANTIC OCEAN: Reports From Britain and America
By Andrew O’Hagan
Mariner, 368 pp., paperback, $15.95
“Never give a writer a key to your apartment” — this is the first line of an essay by Andrew O’Hagan about Truman Capote and the latter’s extraordinary gift for fiction (even when writing nonfiction). After reading these essays, 20 or so, published over the past 20 years, one might hesitate before handing that key over to O’Hagan. A Scot, O’Hagan is eerily adept at reading American culture, from literary icons like Baldwin and Styron to Marilyn Monroe, whose mother and grandmother were both mentally ill. “It might even be possible,” O’Hagan writes, “that Marilyn’s effort to dispel America’s fears about sex were somehow related to her attempts to dispel her own fear of madness.”
O’Hagan’s grasp of American — the language and its peoples — feels less solid in a long reported piece in which he rides with two shady volunteers to a storm-battered Gulf Coast. He’s at his best when on his side of the Atlantic, especially his own Scotland, about which he writes with brutal brilliance. Responding to Britain’s outrage over the 1993 murder of a two-year-old boy by two 10-year-olds, O’Hagan recalls beatings he and his friends carried out; they “knew something of children’s fearsome cruelty to children.”