Barbara Kingsolver’s Journey Home: Renowned novelist and essayist Barbara Kingsolver has made a distinguished name for herself. An avid fan for over almost twenty years, her relationship with Appalachia and pilgrimage home fascinated me. In Kingsolver’s early fiction, her main characters could not get away from Appalachia fast enough. They wanted to be anywhere but in those rural areas. Then, surprisingly, something shifted in her 2001 novel, Prodigal Summer. Set in Appalachia, this entire work bespeaks a love affair with the area.
Kingsolver’s Love of Appalachia: I was glad for Kingsolver yet also envious. She arrived at a point of peace and acceptance of her childhood home several years before I found this space and place for myself. In a 2012 interview with the British newspaper, The Telegraph, Kingsolver discussed her new novel Flight Behavior and her representation of fellow Appalachians: “I wanted, above all, to represent my people with some dignity, as well as beauty. I mean not some dignity, genuine dignity! – I love these people, even the fundamentalists! I love them all.”
The Beginning of My Journey Home: Amazingly, on my journey to name and claim Western Nebraska as “home sweet home,” the topic of sugar beets assisted me. Meditations and reflections on this beet vegetable started during my doctoral studies. While no single experience from this process stands alone, my discovery of sugar-beet agronomy from the 19th-century United States became the touch point that moved me in the direction of contentment.
Sugar Beets in Western Nebraska: As a child, I experienced sugar beets as ordinary, everyday words. They and I were raised in Western Nebraska in the United States. After being harvested, the beets were trucked to town and refined at the sugar factory en route to the digestive palates of America. Born in Colorado, my family moved to my mother’s hometown of Scottsbluff, Nebraska when I was still a baby. My mother and father fulfilled their dream in 1970 with the purchase of a 120-acre farm. While this brought joy to them, I experienced boredom and loss of independence in this relative isolation.
The 19th-century Oprah: The coursework of my Ph.D. introduced me to a woman from 19th-century America whose husband pioneered sugar-beet farming and beet-sugar production. For an assignment, I was drawn to L. Maria Child (1802-1880)—a fellow white woman, a noted author and activist. In like manner to Oprah Winfrey today, if Mrs. Child’s name came up during a conversation back then, people knew exactly who she was. Fascinated by Maria, my dissertation explored politics and religion in her career. Several years later, I wrote her spiritual biography (forthcoming from Swedenborg Foundation, 2014).
Sugar Beets’ Early 19th-century Journey to the United States: Through Maria, I learned about her husband David Lee Child (1794-1874). In 1837, David traveled to France and Germany to learn beet farming and sugar manufacturing methods. They were virtually unknown in the United States at that time. He particularly wanted to know how to extract sugar from these vegetables which could only grow in temperate climates. Upon David’s return home in 1838, he and Maria moved 100 miles west of Boston to Northampton in rural Massachusetts to pursue his experiment with sugar-beet farming. David, as part of the free-labor movement (paid workers) in the North, attempted to grow beets as a way to undermine the slave economy and provide an additional product utilizing paid labor. In that time period, sugar from cane was the number-one commodity in the world market produced by enslaved labor.
Award-Winning Manufacture of Beet Sugar: In 1838, David became the first person in the United States to manufacture a large amount of sugar from beets—1,200 pounds. He received many awards including a medal and diploma from the Mechanics Institute and a $100 prize from the Agricultural Society. David published a book on his pioneering work, The Culture of the beet, and manufacture of best sugar (1840). He also gave guest lectures on the topic. The production of beet sugar, unfortunately, was not commercially viable until the 1870s when the manufacturing process better developed innovative equipment and machinery. Nonetheless, he remains one of our early pioneers in these endeavors.
David Child’s Influence on My Road Home: David’s 19th-century efforts started me down my intriguing path of agricultural appreciation in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. So much more depth and complexity to a single crop became revealed when viewed within its historical and societal webs. In my life, I hated growing up on a farm. I carried that grudge into my adulthood. When I learned about Maria and David Child, I was in my late 30s. The time had come to let go of the old bitterness. I hoped to find some nuance and wisdom within my personal story along with the guidance of friends and family to help release the resentment.