The Taste of Sugar

Liveright: Norton. Jun. 2020. 384p. ISBN 9781631497735. $26.95. F
In the late 1890s, the devastating San Ciriaco hurricane wrecked the Puerto Rican sugar, cotton, tobacco, and coffee industries just as the island’s population was coming to terms with the impact of the Spanish-American War and an American occupying force. Vera (If I Bring Roses) captures the trials of Vicente and Valentina Vega, homing in on their efforts to sustain their struggling coffee farm amid overwhelming personal tragedies and trials. Like thousands of their compatriots, the couple risks immigration to Hawaii, where sugar plantation owners entice desperate families facing starvation with what are ultimately empty promises of an improved livelihood. Along with other laborers from Japan, the Vega family faces discrimination, horrific working conditions, poverty, and homesickness. The narrative is interspersed with letters from Valentina to her sister revealing Puerto Rico’s rich, complex history and socioeconomic setting in the 19th century.
VERDICT Vera’s saga is impeccably timed to provide insights into the troubling history of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, and showing that the colonization of puertorriqueños extended to the Pacific fills a gap in history for many. Recommended for anyone who enjoys epic stories of hardship and loss as well as the perseverance, love, and strength drawn from one’s family and culture.

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