Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: I love books where I learn new things especially in subjects that I thought I knew something about. I REALLY love books that make me say, “Wait a minute! What makes you say THAT?” Marc Aronson is really good at that and his new book with Marina Budhos, Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science (Clarion 2010) had me saying exactly that. Sweet! Here is a book that made me check out sources, look things up and read more. Here is a book that camped out in my brain and kept intruding. It turned me into a walking internal debate society. I love this in a book and it is a rare thing to find.
Aronson and Budhos frame the book with their own family stories, at once personalizing history and anchoring its relevance to our world. Then they take the history of a substance every gum-chewing one of us takes for granted, links it to a studied to death concept – the Triangle Trade and turn it all upside down. “The true Age of Sugar had begun – and it was doing more to reshape the world than any ruler, empire or war had every done,,” Aronson and Budhos assert. Huh? Wait a minute! What makes you say that? And we’re off on a thought-provoking journey.
Even if the book itself was so-so (and it is very far from that) the Notes and Sources are practically a how-to manual and an inspiring essay titled, How We Wrote and Researched This Book, should be required reading for every teacher training class in every college. The entire book is a gift we should be giving to students in this Google-it-and-believe culture. Use this in high school history classes to get the arguments flowing.
Did sugar change the world? I’m still reading some of Aronson’s sources so let me chew on it for a while.
Cindy: Many of today’s middle school students will be surprised to learn about sugar’s role in slavery as they read about the millions of Africans brought to the Latin American islands to support the sugar industry and the brutal treatment they received. Their familiarity with slavery usually begins and ends with cotton. There’s a gruesome story about an ax having been kept next to the sugar mill wheels so when a tired female slave feeding sugar cane into the rollers let her attention wander and got an arm stuck, it could be hacked off quickly so she wouldn’t be pulled into the grinder herself. I like this book for all the reasons that Lynn points out but want to add that it is a book that is supplemented with much additional information to reward the careful reader who studies illustrations and reads the accompanying captions. This is a great example of quality nonfiction for teens, and one that deserves the multiple stars it is racking up.