Sweetbitter: A Novel

Image of Sweetbitter
Release Date: 
August 1, 2023
Jackleg Press
Reviewed by: 

There is something to be said about a book that has survived the test of time. Sweetbitter was first published in 1995 by Broken Moon Press. It won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for social justice. In 1996 the second edition was published by Penguin Books, and again in 2003 by LSU Press. Its impact is self-evident since this is the fourth edition.

The author himself is part Choctaw. This is his first novel. It is quite thought-provoking and well worth reading.

The book initially takes place in East Texas. The main characters are Ruben, who is half Choctaw and half white, and Martha Clarke, a white woman.

In 1902 racial prejudice and persecution dominated the landscape. The hierarchy of racial groups was white, house Black, Black, and Native American. Think about that statement as you read this eye-opening book.

The first part of the book focuses on Ruben and his mother Molly as they searched for a better life. They were barefoot, had few clothes, and had to scrounge for their food. People ignored them as much as possible.

He was about 11 when she died. She was soon buried by the side of the road by two insensitive white men.

At appropriate times the author includes cultural facts that add to the narrative. This is one of those times. “From the top of a smooth red pole, where a white flag flaps and falls listlessly, the spirit of the dead person leaps off to fly to the afterworld.” Tragically, Ruben’s mother never had the opportunity to fly off into the afterlife.

Reuban’s grandfather taught the young boy Indian ways whenever they were together. Even so, how does a 12-year-old survive in East Texas during such times?

Martha Clarke and Ruben were quite the odd couple. “She was as white-skinned as the moon and he was something akin to the color of red clay.” Here the top tier of the racial hierarchy engages the lowest tier.   

Martha’s father James Clarke, Sr., a pillar of society in Etham, Texas, would most certainly be opposed to any form or type of interaction between the two. His son James Jr. would be more so.

Junior was not that fond of his sister. His tyrannical behavior was both emotional and physical toward her. Fortunately for the reader, the author sends young James into hibernation for quite some time.

What happens to Ruben and Martha? That is what the rest of the story is about. The story is not always bright. In fact, a lot of it is conflicting. There many interesting and sometimes very sad surprises along the way. Learning about these makes reading the book worthwhile.

Throughout, we see moments of great compassion, the kind of compassion that shows the best of humanity. There are also those ugly instances and situations that show the depravity of mankind sickeningly. Does good really triumph over evil?  

The last entry opens thusly: “It would be a strange time, much talked about afterward, that day in early March when a surprising snowfall, after a few hours, had left on the streets and roads, lawns and wild places, and even cupped in early blossoms, a pure whiteness.”