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Sugar: A Bittersweet History

by Elizabeth Abbott

Everyone knows too much sugar is bad for you. But after reading Elizabeth Abbott’s brilliant and assiduously researched Sugar, the truth of exactly how bad will become clear.

Abbott takes a spoonful of sugar and analyzes, details, historicizes, and deconstructs it – telling its story, from its origins in the South Pacific to its power over aristocracy to its role as the harbinger of slavery and colonial oppression in the “developing” world. Abbott writes about the history of sugar with a fluid, fierce narrative power and a vengeful intelligence. Her personal stake in the story – via her own recently discovered West Indian heritage – makes the book all the more compelling; she writes that this book is one she has “been writing all my life.” This personal revelation gives the book its power, and provides her research into slavery and the stark cruelties of Big Sugar with a dark potency.

Abbott includes a wealth of material, leaving no stone unturned and mining a plethora of sources. Perhaps most importantly, she provides testimony of both male and female slaves, whose voices and experiences are at last heard.

Abbott’s accounts of the past and present of sugar consumption are sickening when weighed against the heat, toil, drudgery, disease, torture, and death of the cane fields. At the end, Abbott deals us the blow that nothing about Big Sugar has changed, that its inherent slavery, racism, and social injustice still reign. Not even her final mention of sugarcane as being the possible future of biofuel can diminish sugar’s overall history of cruelty or tyranny, a history she has so thoroughly and unflinchingly encapsulated.


Reviewer: Christine Walde

Publisher: Penguin Canada


Price: $24

Page Count: 512 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-0-14-301713-4

Released: Jan.

Issue Date: 2008-3

Categories: History