Friday, February 19, 2010

Elizabeth Abbott, author of SUGAR: A BITTERSWEET HISTORY, Interviewed in Library Journal

Elizabeth Abbott's forthcoming Sugar: A Bittersweet History has been selected a Spring 2010 "Editor's Pick" by Library Journal: "Little girls may be a mixture of “sugar and spice and everything nice” (I'll leave that debate for another piece!), but when it comes to global cause and effect, sugar leaves all other ingredients behind—and it's hard to find anything “nice” about it. In her latest book, Canadian scholar Elizabeth Abbott (research associate, Trinity Coll., Univ. of Toronto) traces the sugar that runs in history's veins.

A descendant of Antigua sugar producers, Abbott tells LJ that this “was the book of my heart,” recalling that it took “years to figure out what sort of book it would be.” When I suggest what it is, she accepts that it's “a sweeping narrative that links and contextualizes the stories of individuals, systems, and movements, while grounded in solid scholarship.”

Abbott ranges across oceans, following sugar from its native South Asia through Arab trade routes to Mediterranean countries and from thence to the colonized Caribbean, where such was the sweet tooth and hunger for profit of the Dutch and the French that they sacrificed temperate colonies (think New Amsterdam and Canada) to maintain claim to sugar-producing islands in the tropics. A few score years later, and Abbott is leading us through the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, showing us such popular introductions as ice cream parlors, soda pop, Jell-O treats, and penny candy, not to mention the wonders of sugar combined with cocoa or the ongoing commodification of special occasions and holidays into candy fests.

Abbott's book is personal, owing both to her own expressions of response to what sugar has done and to her character sketches of men and women caught up in sugar's web. “I wanted…to bring my characters alive on the page,” she says, “and convey the complexities and nuances of the world they inhabit.” Her readers will witness sugar's crucial contribution first to the fatal geometry of the slave trade and thereafter to environmental damage greater than from any other single crop on Earth.

And what of Haiti, where Abbott lived for some years? As a slave colony spun out of sugar, Haiti satisfied half of the world demand, but its early 19th-century independence brought that to an end. I ask Abbott her thoughts about the country after the earthquake. “Haiti is in such a state of devastation, with so little left to repair,” she says, “that the reconstruction process can be really imaginative and wide-ranging. This may be—should be!—the time to consider reestablishing the sugarcane culture that was once centered in Léogane, the epicenter of the earthquake. Sugarcane grown for refinement into ethanol to replace or supplement costly imported oil would employ thousands of Haitians and help the nation toward self-sufficiency in fueling itself.”

Abbott quotes food historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, who noted, “So many tears were shed for sugar that by rights it ought to have lost its sweetness.” Sugar and Sugar both will give readers a lift, and, ultimately, both offer hope."—Margaret Heilbrun

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