This is a beautiful book that spans from the 1920s to the 1960s. It tells the story of Dara, a young woman who falls in love with another young woman called Rhodie. Dara is only 22 when she meets Rhodie, and it is love at first sight. Although their affair is brief its aftermath is long and enduring. Their tender love story tells of Dara’s forbidden desire and the start of her lifetime of denial, secrecy, and self-sacrifice, living in a country that hated gay people.
The story is set in Southern Texas in a remote, backward, and homophobic place named Sugar Land. In those times being gay was probably the worst thing anyone could possibly be. Shame, fear, and guilt were the staple diet for anybody attracted to their own sex. Worse still, many were raped and killed if they revealed their true identity.
Dara and Rhodie’s love affair ends abruptly after Rhodie’s mother finds them one day in a compromising position. The fear of her parents finding out prompts Dara to leave home, and she finds work in the kitchen of a men’s prison. This is a tough choice because it wasn’t the norm in that era for women to work in male prisons. But Dara settles in rather well and finds a home for herself while dealing with her own inward struggles over her sexuality. The irony of her situation is evident: she is emotionally imprisoned while working in an environment for those physically imprisoned.
Dara misses Rhodie dreadfully, but finds solace in a black inmate called Huddie who helps out in the kitchen. It is a special relationship. They aren’t allowed to speak to each other but manage to steal quick moments of conversation.
Racism is rife in the prison and the appalling treatment of Huddie and others like him is gut wrenching. Eventually Huddie, a gifted guitarist and blues singer, is pardoned, and Dara decides to leave after the warden of the prison proposes marriage to her. She had caught his eye after his wife died, and he decided Dara was to be her replacement. But for Dara, leaving and getting married seems like a betrayal to Rhodie, although by that point they had not seen each other for over ten years.
There are moments of good humor in the book, for example, a scene describing Dara’s nervousness on her wedding night when during sex her husband struggles; so resistant is her hymen to allow a man to enter her. But the warden is a good man, and Dara loves him in her own way. Dara states, “. . . maybe you only get one soul mate, but that doesn’t mean the rest is donkey shit.”
The story gathers pace after Dara and the warden are married. Domestic life caring for the warden’s two daughters beckons and so does obesity, after having worked around food for so long—something that helped hide the secret she carries around about her true-self.
When the warden dies, Dara leaves the prison accommodation and shares his inheritance with her two step-daughters, who she gets along with quite well, before buying herself a mobile home in her quest to make a new life for herself. Generally, this goes well as she is a self-sufficient woman, but her life is pretty bland and mundane.
Her weight continues to increase and her large size means she has to have her dresses tailor-made to accommodate her large frame. This in itself is an act of destiny because it leads to her meeting somebody special: a widow with the same inclinations as herself.
The new dresses are quickly followed by a new diet and exercise. Dara is by now middle-aged and after a lifetime of hankering and reminiscing about a brief love affair in her youth, she is now able to live an authentic life in which she has the freedom to express her love.
Although Texas at this time is still deeply homophobic, there are signs that things are about to improve. Dara, though, has come to terms with who she is and no longer feels the need to hide her identity, resulting in her and her new partner booking into a posh hotel room where they make passionate love to each other. Hallelujah!
There are many sub-plots and facets to Dara’s life spread throughout the book, including her enduring friendship with Huddie, who goes on to become a famous recording artist, and insights into the life of one of her step-daughters who has gender identity difficulties.
Sugar Land is a well written book and its writing style reminds one at times of Doris Lessing. There is a beautiful flow to the narrative, and the plot is expertly crafted. This is writing at its finest, resulting in a good story that is well told.
Stoner is sparse at times with her descriptions of places and people, yet she delivers enough to capture the imagination of the reader. This too is one of her skills. Sugar Land leaves a favourable impression and it is recommended as a reminder of the emotional hardships endured by lesbians and others in the LGBT communities in the last century. They suffered great turmoil and angst before equality and laws were introduced that helped unshackle them from the bigotry and intolerance of the past, enabling them to walk into more liberating and freer times.