The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Sugar Run
Sugar Run
by Mesha Maren

Paperback (8 Oct 2019), 336 pages.
Publisher: Algonquin Books
ISBN-13: 9781616209810

Set within the charged insularity of rural West Virginia, Sugar Run is a searing and gritty debut about making a run for another life.

On the far side the view was nothing but ridgelines, the craggy silhouettes rising up against the night sky like the body of some dormant god. Jodi felt her breath go tight in her chest. This road went only one way, it seemed, in under the mountains until you were circled.

In 1989, Jodi McCarty is seventeen years old when she’s sentenced to life in prison for manslaughter. She’s released eighteen years later and finds herself at a Greyhound bus stop, reeling from the shock of unexpected freedom. Not yet able to return to her lost home in the Appalachian mountains, she goes searching for someone she left behind, but on the way, she meets and falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother. Together, they try to make a fresh start, but is that even possible in a town that refuses to change?

Sugar Run

At the Greyhound station in Dahlonega the van driver shooed Jodi and the redhead out into the parking lot. The rain had slowed to a thin, sifting mist.

Jodi tilted her head back and pivoted left, then right, trying to find east, but the yellow-gray dawn seemed to come from every direction. The redhead started toward the station, where a flannel-shirted man hunched under the tin overhang, smoking a cigar. Jodi followed. She couldn't think past this moment or else her mind washed all white again but the redhead seemed to have her feet set resolutely on a path pointed forward.

The station was warm, filled with the calls of departure times and TV chatter. Shelves of colored bottles lined the wall of the newsstand: the ribboned neck of Grand Marnier, stout-brown Jack, filigreed Wild Irish Rose, and below them, a spinning rack of sunglasses where, in the mirror, Jodi saw her own cavernous cheeks and pit-dark eyes. Got the worst of both sides, her grandmother Effie had loved to say. British teeth and Injun eyes.

"Can I get you something?" the newsstand man asked.

"Marlboros," Jodi said. Cigarettes, at least, were something solid and not new. When her eyes went back to the bottle of Jack, the cashier set it down on the counter beside the cigarettes.

Out front the wind smelled green. Jodi lit a cigarette, nodded at the flannel-shirted man, and stared through the window to where the redhead stood at the ticket counter.

"Cold for July," the flannel man said.

Jodi glanced back at him. He was small with age, bent deep in every joint.

"Where you headed?" he asked, his breath smelling of cherry Swisher Sweets.

"South," Jodi said. "Chaunceloraine, Georgia."

The man shook his head. "We weren't meant to live in the low places. He tries to show us. Hurriken, flood, malarial fever." The man pursed his lips and turned the corners down. "The Lord resides in the mountains," he said, exhaling a funnel of pale smoke.


The Greyhound wound out of Dahlonega and down toward the piedmont, until the hills and ridges were nothing but bruise-blue humps beyond the yellow fields. Jodi had settled herself into the farthest-back seat. The bus was more than half empty, just a mustached man with a pencil stuck behind his ear, a woman in striped pajama pants, a mother with four kids and a few other sleeping passengers. At Jaxton private space had come only by the inch, if at all. Silence came only in the middle of the night, and even that was often punctured by whispers or screams.

Jodi set her bag on the seat beside her and leaned back but even there, in the quiet of the Greyhound, the voices trailed after her, the roiling noise of the cafeteria. Last supper? Tressa had shouted the night before, tucking her hair behind one ear as she leaned across the table. Jodi had looked away and pressed the back of her spoon into her instant potatoes, flattening them out so that the watery gravy spilled into the creamed corn.

They weren't supposed to know one another's release dates but everybody always found out. And once you knew, you could see it, that palpable energy ringing out from a girl in her last week. Some of the women couldn't bear it and they'd steal a girl's date, slip something into her pocket or pay a cellmate to plant it, and next thing you knew she was being kept for another six to nine. The ones who played at husband and wife, they were all the time stealing one another's dates.

"Where you headed to tomorrow?" Tressa had asked, and Jodi had glanced up at her. Neither of them said the word aloud but it had floated around them, that slippery s of release.

"I've got a little something I've got to move out of here." Tressa leaned in, lover close, lips on Jodi's ear.

"You'll help me right?" Tressa said, and Jodi had smiled, shaking her head.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Sugar Run by Mesha Maren. Copyright © 2019 by Mesha Maren. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Have you ever loved a place so much that you were willing to do anything to get back there? Why do you think Jodi is so obsessed with her grandmother's land? How do her dreams and expectations compare to what it is actually like to return?
  2. What do you think is the difference between being "of" a place and being "from" a place? Lynn is a transplant to West Virginia and she clearly considers it home, but she knows that she is not accepted there. What do you think of her relationship to West Virginia and its possible destruction through fracking as compared to Jodi's or Farren's?
  3. Jodi and Miranda never talk openly about their relationship or their sexual identities. How important do you think it is to articulate an attraction or relationship like that?
  4. Jodi is selfless in many ways, and often puts herself in precarious situations to help Ricky, Miranda, and others. Can you relate to this? Why or why not?
  5. A number of the characters in Sugar Run keep secrets from one another. Why is this? What is it that secrets allow us to have?
  6. The book examines family and community from a number of angles: blood family, chosen family, and community bonds. What are your thoughts on the effects of family and spontaneous communities, both in the book and in your own experience?
  7. As with many formerly incarcerated individuals, Jodi struggles to find a job after prison, which makes her more vulnerable to making bad decisions. How might communities help formerly incarcerated people better reintegrate into society?
  8. In what ways do sibling relationships affect the novel?
  9. What is your definition of loyalty? What role does loyalty play in Sugar Run?
  10. Jodi struggles to talk openly to anyone in West Virginia about her sexuality. What do you think might have happened had she revealed her sexual orientation to her family and town community?


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Algonquin Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

What happens when no matter how hard you try to do things differently you end up in the same place where you started?

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Mesha Maren's debut novel is a plunge into the depths of the dark Southern gothic with pulsing and dynamic prose. Her characters are vividly drawn, her plot taut with a breathtaking tension as it moves back and forth from her protagonist's deadly past in 1988 to her present in 2007, when she tries desperately to get her life back in order, only to find herself sliding backwards, weighed down by poor decisions and bad company.

Jodi McCarty was 17 when she met her first love, an older woman and blackjack hustler named Paula. The two women spent a year together, traveling to different cities, high on uppers, gambling, and robbing convenience stores. In 2007, Jodi has just been released from the prison term she was serving for shooting and killing Paula. She is determined to return to Georgia and find Paula's younger brother Ricky to save him from his abusive father. In the process, Jodi meets Miranda Golden, the ex-wife of famous country singer Lee Golden, and her three sons. She immediately falls in love with Miranda, and plans to take this newfound family, along with Ricky, to her deceased grandmother's farm in West Virginia. However, when they arrive, she discovers the farm has been sold, no one will hire her because of her criminal history, and the countryside is overrun by fracking developers. Meanwhile, Miranda's ex-husband is searching for his children, who Miranda took without his permission, and Jodi's brother Dennis wants to involve her in his drug dealing business.

These circumstances work in conjunction to demonstrate Maren's principal themes; that one terrible mistake has the potential to ruin a person's life forever even after they've served their time, and that damaged people are often magnetically drawn to each other, compounding their misery. Jodi can't even get a job at Walmart because she's served time, so when Dennis offers to pay her to keep drugs on the farm (where she, Ricky, Miranda and the boys are squatting), she feels she cannot turn him down. Legitimate society has given up on Jodi, so she feels she has no choice but to give up on legitimacy in return.

The reader learns at the beginning of the novel that Jodi shot Paula, but the increasingly suspenseful flashbacks gradually unravel the story of how and why it happened. Through these fragments of Jodi's earlier years, we see how she became the person that she is; and how she is, in some ways, reliving her past mistakes in the present with Miranda. We see how Paula became a destructive influence in Jodi's life and how Jodi's relationship with her molded her understanding of love and her romantic sensibility.

...Paula seems to her to be weightless, free of all normal responsibilities and constantly on the verge of something dangerous and great. There is a velocity to her that pulls you close. Her life lived like the coil before the strike.

Jodi wants to save Miranda, her children, and Ricky, but instead ends up in a web of codependency, as events spiral ever further out of her control. The chapters from the past and the chapters from the present often mirror one another in subtle ways to demonstrate the lessons Jodi has failed to learn, a deft expression of Maren's skills in plotting and building suspense. It is apparent from the beginning that Jodi and her fellow outcasts are on a collision course with catastrophe, and when it finally comes at the end of the novel, it is tenderly wrought. Maren's empathy for her protagonist's plight is evident and inspires similar feelings in the reader.

While Jodi is the narrator throughout the bulk of the novel, Maren dips into Miranda's perspective frequently, but these shifts in point-of-view are occasionally distracting. And despite Maren's attempt to make her appear so, Miranda rarely comes across as sympathetic. This is a minor flaw in the grander scheme of the novel, however. Sugar Run is a twisting, well-crafted exploration of love and desperation set evocatively in a southern town on the verge of environmental ruin.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Intriguing...lyrical...Maren adroitly incorporates issues surrounding poverty in rural America into her narrative, including drug dealing and addiction; lack of jobs; fracking, which destroys communities and the land’s ecological health; and gun violence, which can change everything in a moment. Maren’s story is engaging and full of damaged and provocative characters who, like all of us, can be misled by our hearts.

New York Times
The literary lineages here are hard-boiled fiction and film noir, but on every page of her debut novel, Mesha Maren creates bold new takes on those venerable genres, a much needed refresh of worn tropes and clichés. Maren is masterly at describing America’s modern wastelands, the blasted towns not yet and maybe never-to-be the beneficiaries of rehabilitation and reoccupation. You can almost see Maren—like Raymond Chandler—cutting each typed page into three strips and requiring each strip to contain something delightful (startling simile, clever dialogue, brilliant description) offered to the reader as a recompense for a world that presses up against you all raw and aggressive and dangerous.

Publishers Weekly
Maren’s impressive debut is replete with luminous prose that complements her cast of flawed characters.

Dread and a lush natural world infuse Maren's noir-tinged debut as she carefully relays soul-crushing realities and myths of poverty and privilege, luck and rehabilitation, and the human needs that can precede criminality through love-starved loner Jodi and her band of fellow hungry souls.

Kirkus Reviews
Darkly engrossing...This impressive first novel combines beautifully crafted language and a steamy Southern noir plot to fine effect.

Library Journal
Starred Review. A highly recommended debut.

Author Blurb Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter's Bone
Strong and insightful ... Maren puts stories to lives that are ordinarily overlooked, exploring damaged souls and damaged land, the need for that redemptive sense of connection to places and people. Maren writes prose that moves us ever deeper into her world without strain, but with sureness and vivid details.

Author Blurb C. Morgan Babst, author of The Floating World
Sugar Run is a joyride - an intoxicating, headlong exploration of the hazards of freedom and the deadly consequence of desire. Maren's blistering prose will take your breath away.

Author Blurb Laura Kasischke, author of Mind of Winter
Sugar Run is one of the most riveting novels I've read in years...This is the debut of a major new voice, one who offers us a reality more vibrant than our reality, but honest, raw, and believable.

Author Blurb Scott McClanahan, author of Crapalachia
With Sugar Run, Mesha Maren announces herself as a wholly original voice in contemporary fiction. Full of diamond-sharp sentences and perfect pacing, the novel runs wild like a mountain flash flood.

Author Blurb Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies
A shining debut, with a heady admixture of explosive plot and taut, burnished prose. This is a book that loves its wounded characters and troubled places, and in so deeply loving, it finds a terrible truth and beauty where other writers wouldn't have found the courage to look ... Mesha Maren writes like a force of nature.

Write your own review

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Sandi W.
strings left dangling
I am not sure exactly what it was that I was expecting or waiting for in this book, but it never seemed to materialize. For a debut novel there was plenty of action in the story, some good character development and a plausible plot, but for me it just missed the mark.

The story of a young Appalachian girl imprisoned for manslaughter. Once released she headed home to claim the land that had been in her family for generations, only to find that the homestead had been sold out from under her and the mountain was deeply involved in the fracking process. Hooking up with a tumultuous group of people, Jodie was never at peace.

I didn't care for the abrupt ending of the story and felt that there were still strings left dangling. I came away from this novel unfulfilled and a bit disappointed.

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Finding Employment After Prison

Work after PrisonIn Sugar Run, the principal protagonist Jodi McCarty has just been released from prison after serving a nearly 20-year term. She finds life as a free woman more difficult than she imagined, largely due to her inability to find gainful employment. This is a common issue with newly released inmates, and one of the leading causes of recidivism.

According to a 2018 study conducted by the Brookings Institute, only 55% of former inmates report any earned income the first year after their release. Among those who do find work, the median income is just $10,090. Only 20% of working inmates reported earning over $15,000. (The federal poverty line in the United States in 2019 is $12,490 for a single person household.)

A 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative states that among the 5 million formerly incarcerated Americans 27% are unemployed. This is five times higher than the rate of unemployment among the general population of the U.S. They further note that, among this group, women of color find it most difficult to find employment, with men of color not far behind. Their research shows that, despite a majority of companies claiming they do not discriminate on the basis of a criminal record when hiring, a criminal history reduces an individual's responses from potential employers by 50%. Former inmates who are white men are more likely to be hired in full time positions, whereas people of color are most likely to find only part time or occasional work.

There are many potential solutions to the problem of unemployment post-incarceration. There is a growing activist movement seeking to "Ban the Box" asking about criminal records on job application forms. Twenty states have passed legislation requiring the removal of this question from applications for public employers, and ten states have laws forbidding this question for both public and private companies. Target Corporation "banned the box" in 2013. The Prison Policy Initiative has suggested a guaranteed basic income for a brief period for the formerly incarcerated upon release, as well as increased insurance and tax benefits for employers willing to hire ex-convicts. Obviously, failure to find a job can be a huge problem for someone just released from prison, and can even push people back into criminal activity, just as it does for Jodi in Sugar Run. A Christian non-profit group called Prison Fellowship works with currently incarcerated individuals, providing mentoring services and job training to prepare them for the transition to life on the outside. A similar program is run by America Works, and this program was the subject of a 2015 study by the Manhattan Institute, which determined that enhanced job training for newly released non-violent offenders substantially lowered the chance of recidivism over the 18-36 months post-prison. Once a person has served their term, it is vital they be permitted and encouraged to rejoin society.

Filed under Society and Politics

By Lisa Butts

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