Children of Sugarcane

Written by Joanne Joseph
Review by Helen Johnson

Madras, India, late 1860s: Shanti, a lowly village girl, fears marriage, despite having loving parents. It’s how things are. Girls must be married, and once married, no questions can be asked, no matter if the marriage proves abusive. It happened to her friend, and Shanti is terrified. Hence, when a trickster offers her indenture to Port Natal, Shanti runs away to life on a plantation in South Africa.

She had dreamed of independence, to work, make money, and return to her beloved parents. But although “indenture” may not technically be slavery, it looks very much like it. This story highlights a lesser-known part of British colonialism: the shipment of thousands of indentured workers to other continents. Shanti’s experience of indenture is brutal. So much so, that the author warns in a fore-note that readers may finds some parts offensive. Unfortunately, the experiences—and attitudes—that Shanti suffers are those reported in the historical record.

But Joseph need make no apology for her book. It is a work of brilliance. This sad history is brought to life through the hard choices of characters who live and breathe, laugh and love, leading me to keep turning the pages. Joseph leavens the trauma with lyrical writing, bringing landscapes vividly to mind with the deftest of phrases. Distressing events are treated in a poetic style that reaches the heart of the matter far better than any gruesome catalogue of injuries.

We should be shocked by Shanti’s story. We should also accept that the past cannot be changed. But we could try to make a better future. Shanti’s life is redeemed by the power of love in all its guises, and the value of reconciliation. The characters’ love for each another still shines after the book is closed and gone. Highly recommended.