Dara’s problem is clear when she answers the “Who are you hiding from?” question with “Everybody else, I suppose. Maybe me?” Sugar Land, by Tammy Lynne Stoner, is all about characters coming to grips with who they are and who they feel driven to love, whatever societal pressures may try to stamp that out of them. Through Dara’s self-exploration, aided and abetted by a colorful supporting cast, Sugar Land becomes an unmissable work of historical fiction.
Centralizing Dismissed Characters
I often find historical fiction to be pedantic, tired, unable to achieve the veracity of nonfiction and neither able to take the risks of other fictional genres. Thankfully, Stoner’s book commits none of those sins, in large part due to her willingness to centralize characters that modern fiction, let alone tales set in bygone years, give short shrift.
A blunt synopsis might go as follows. Dara is a lesbian in rural Texas who enters a doomed romance with Rhodie, a college-bound girl in her hometown. They are discovered having sex by Rhodie’s mother and everything unravels to the point that Dara ejects herself from her rural confines by securing a job as a kitchen worker in a Texas state prison. She even claims, not at all hyperbolically, “My future if I let things go on: beatings and shame and suicide and eternal damnation.”
Hence where she receives the question about what she’s running from. There are too many white male hetero coming-of-age tales and not enough of everything else. So it is refreshing to see such a wonderfully realized story about a non-typical character type. It is yet more refreshing to experience Stoner’s strong-willed, excellently rendered tale about such a character.
Searching for Soul-Shaking Love
Dara experiences ups and downs that take her away from the prison, back to her rural Texas town, with children of her own. It is impossible to read this historical novel without applying pieces of it to modern times. For all our progress, the road remains long. I feel the yearning in the line, “A loneliness that comes from settling for a love that won’t ever touch your soul.” Dara deserves a soul-shaking love. How much more those who live beyond the confines of paper. For it to be denied Dara for so long by societal pressure and misguided mores is heartbreaking. To acknowledge the same happens throughout the world now is eviscerating. This is when fiction functions best: when it reminds us of the kind of world we could have, providing a roadmap for how we might secure it.
The novel deals with Dara’s internal struggle to accept her lesbianism (and fully live it out) in a culture that seeks to repel humans like her while also layering the external conflict that develops between Dara and her two step-daughters. The conflict becomes sharpest in the delivery of the line, “You love the way other people see our family more than you love the way I feel,” said in response to one of Dara’s stepdaughters feeling repulsed by her admission of her lesbianism. Later, Dara proclaims, “I do not think we are sinners. We were just born too soon for the rest of the world to realize that.” I am reminded that people are still being born and not being accepted by the world because of who and how they choose to love.
This is why I keep reading fiction: to find the energy to keep fighting for what matters.
Stoner winds her novel up with aplomb, giving each character a deservedly joyful ending. Dara figures out how to love herself and how to love whoever her heart is drawn to without reservation. How good it is to read about characters who society would immorally paint as vile finding precious, transformative love amidst the wreckage the world would have them otherwise drown in.
This book is a tunnel for its characters with so much light at the end. Entering that light, seeing it and feeling it, I cannot help but love what Stoner has created in these pages.
Sugar Land is published by Red Hen Press.
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