1 February 2024 Susannah

Children of Sugarcane

Children of Sugarcane

Children of Sugarcane by Joanne Joseph was published in 2021. It’s the story of a low caste Indian woman, Shanti, who travels out to Port Natal in South Africa, in order to escape an arranged marriage. She goes as an indentured worker and endures a hideous life in the sugar cane fields there in the middle of the 19th century. The story spans four decades and two continents and is a vivid and moving portrayal of the life of a bright woman trapped in terrible circumstances. I learned a lot about plantation life in Natal, the mass importation of Indian migrants, and the racial divisions in South Africa that are still such a strong part of its society today.

I have always enjoyed good courtroom drama and the best parts of this book are the court scenes. Shanti is convicted of killing her white master, who has raped her repeatedly, and is tried in a court full of white people, by a system that is prejudiced against her as an Indian and as a woman. Her lawyer does his best with clever arguments, but the bias against her is so strong from the start. The scenes and dialogues were gripping!

Joanne Joseph wrote the book after researching her own family history. She weaves her research lightly into the story, and makes the reader very aware of the dangers, traumas and challenges of Shanti’s youth in India, and then her time of indenture in the sugar cane fields. I do have some doubts about the way in which Shanti escapes her sentence – it just didn’t seem convincing to me – but it was an excellent read, and something rather different.

If you do read this book, I’d love to know what you thought of the ending. Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- Joanne Joseph, Children of Sugarcane, https://www.bigissue.org.za/5-minutes-with-joanne-joseph/; & Natal, South Africa: workers cutting sugar cane on a plantation. Woodburytype, 1888, after a photograph by Robert Harris, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/rjqkprpn

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