By Ashley Lessa
Sugar Land is the southern story of Nana Dara, a prison cook at the Imperial State Prison Farm for men in 1923, who—with the help of the blues singer Lead Belly—discovers how to break out of her own physical and emotional prison to become the feisty, lesbian matriarch to a family of Texas misfits.
Published by Red Hen Press, Sugar Land by Tammy Lynne Stoner is a heartfelt story of forbidden love, heartache and triumph in the face of prejudice.
It is 1923, and 20-year-old Dara is a regular southern girl, working in an egg shop in the small town of Midland, Texas. That is until she falls in love with best friend Rhodie, a short-haired, college-bound girl she enjoys killing bullfrogs with and occasionally kissing. Dara knows she and Rhodie’s romance will not be taken lightly in her small town, and she begins to fear for both of their reputations and their lives.
Dara seeks out a place to hide her affections and takes a job as a cook at the Imperial State Prison Farm for Men in Sugar Land, Texas. Thus sets the course of the rest of Dara’s life as she lives through Prohibition, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and beyond. Along the way, she makes a few friends—including the blues-singing prisoner Huddle or “Lead Belly”— and experiences the highs of passionate love and the lows of devastating loss.
Sugar Land touches on many difficult themes, including homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, sexual assault, body image, incarceration, and mental illness, in an honest yet digestible way. In following the life of the fierce and spunky Dara as she moves from her small hometown to working in a prison, to living in a little trailer park, readers are offered a glimpse into the political climates and attitudes of each decade.
While the quirky background characters that fill Dara’s story are a bit one-dimensional, and the settings sparsely described, Stoner creates a frame in which Dara’s personality can shine through. Dara’s character development is slow, but it manages to work as a plot device; as she learns more about herself, so too does the reader. Unfortunately, this means the novel struggles to grab the reader at the start, but by the middle of the novel, as Dara’s biting sense of humor and stubborn tendencies begin to show, it is difficult to put down.
Sugar Land offers a read that, while sugary sweet and amusing at times, is also frank about some of life’s timeless challenges from loss to self-acceptance. (★★★★☆)