Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

“Queen Sugar” offers a fresh perspective on the New South, a landscape marred by inequity yet rich in complexity and perseverance. In it, debut novelist Natalie Baszile gives us that elusive treat — an appropriately complex black woman protagonist.

Told through the eyes of a down-but-not-out Los Angeles art teacher, Charley Bordelan, the novel chronicles her attempt to make a life and build a business on sugarcane land in Louisiana. The “gift” of 800 acres from her recently deceased father gives the young widow and her 11-year-old daughter a fresh start, if not an easy one.

The tale of the locals and migrants who step up to help her (and those who don’t) is told with insight and restraint. It takes a parish, a faith healer and prayer to contend in a back-breaking industry where both treacherous competitors and natural disaster reign. But Charley persists, moved by the notion that “the one thing, perhaps the only thing, she could now give her daughter [was] the chance to see that even a woman in desperate straits could pull her own survival out of the ruddy earth.”

At its core, this is a story of inheritance—not money, but character, ingenuity and focus. There are lessons here about generosity and authority, about family and fortitude, but above all about sense and survival. I was intrigued by this lovely novel’s quiet insistence that the most influential gifts we give children are our examples, including the hours we spend toiling out of their sights providing for futures they cannot yet imagine and we can scarcely control. “Queen Sugar” reminds us that our best isn’t always sufficient, but it is always required. OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network announced that Winfrey and “Selma”  filmmaker Ava DuVernay have joined together to create a new original drama series inspired by “Queen Sugar.” DuVernay is set to write, direct and produce the project and Winfrey will co-produce and act in multiple episodes. Production is scheduled to begin in 2015. Details here.