Sugar is a hooker. When she walks into Bigelow, Arkansas in 1955 in her “spiked red patent leather heels” the God-fearing place is scandalised, especially the women who plot to run her out of town when it seems nearly every married man in Bigelow is availing himself of Sugar’s services. Pearl, her next-door neighbour, is different. Sugar reminds her of her beloved daughter Jude, who more than a decade earlier was raped and murdered, her little body desecrated in the vilest way. “Jude, dangling on the edge of childhood and reaching out toward womanhood, should have been giggling with others her age . . . . . Instead she was dead.” And why? “The murder had white man written all over it . . . But no one would say it above a whisper. It was 1940. It was Bigelow, Arkansas. It was a black child. Need any more be said?”.
So begins this first novel by McFadden, written 20 years ago and now deservedly republished. It still breaks the mould – Sugar is not the tart with a heart of gold, but a young woman utterly hardened by her traumatic past. Abandoned by her mother as a baby, she was raised by three prostitutes who ran an Arkansas bordello. Forced to turn tricks since she was twelve, she’s lived a life of degradation. Sugar’s heart is hard and when she inherits a modest home in Bigelow she earns a living the only way she knows how. As the town’s women rise against her, Pearl befriends her, taking her to church, while Sugar tries to lighten Pearl up by taking her to Saturday night juke joints. They both try to help each other get over their pasts, but the horror defeats them and this lively, engaging and often funny story ends with betrayal and bittersweet poignancy. Sugar is a joy to read, but sadly its tale of black oppression still seems relevant today.