Mesha Maren’s debut novel, “Sugar Run,” tells the story of a queer, Appalachian woman, Jodi, who just finished an 18-year stint in a federal correctional facility; she was 17 when she was sentenced to life in prison. When she is released in 2007, she’s uneasy about returning home to her broken family. Instead, she opts to head south to Georgia and make amends with lost friends.
In Chaunceloraine, Georgia, she falls in love with Miranda — a young, charmingly impulsive mother of three. As Jodi becomes a part of their family and works to help her new girlfriend regain legal custody of her sons, she balances the legal intricacies of being thrust out of the criminal justice system. Throughout the process, Jodi comes to terms with the criminal lifestyle that got her indicted in the first place.
Despite the powerful plotline, Maren’s flood of useless detail made Jodi’s story trudge along. The chronology jumped back and forth between 1989 and present day, ultimately pulling the brakes on any sort of potential suspense by recalling a dull flashback of her pre-prison love affair with an older woman.
Additionally, at a time in which prison reform is such a point of political contention, “Sugar Run” had the opportunity to criticize the deeply flawed criminal justice system. But, Maren’s emotionally distant prose does little more than simplify these issues. There is such a strong emotional disconnect between the author and the characters that it seems as though Maren is ignorant on the subject, as if she’s never been to a prison or spoken to an inmate (although this isn’t the case — Maren is currently teaching writing at a correctional facility). Character development is minimal at best and suffocated by the plot-heavy direction. The prose is often unoriginal and simplistic — at times mimicking the syntax of a young-adult novel.
The arch was dramatic, fresh and gritty, and Maren powerfully depicted the repetitive nature of personal mistakes, despite a change in environment. This makes the protagonist endearing and sincere. As she slips back into old mistakes and history repeats itself, the plot humanizes the characters and adds an emotional relation that the rest of the book lacks. Maren paints a homey admiration of West Virginia and Georgia while simultaneously maintaining awareness of the politically restrictive environment — particularly for a queer woman with a criminal record.
Maren ultimately shines a light on queer, Appalachian women and tackles land usage, fracking and property rights in her verbose, debut novel. Though lacking strong pathos or a clear sense of direction, “Sugar Run” is particularly important because it highlights issues in small-town, underprivileged communities.