Monday, March 01, 2010

The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by Helene Cooper

As hard as it may now seem to imagine, the modern state of Liberia was considered a great African success story as late as the 1970s. Anyone who looked closely enough at that time would have seen the great inequities and built up anger among the poor, but most of the world never looked past the facade of the wealthy upper class. At the top of the social structure were descendants of free blacks from America, who moved to the western coast of Africa in the nineteenth century. Helene Cooper's family belonged to that class. She tells about her family and the revolution that changed their lives in her memoir The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood.

Fascinated by the details, I listened to Cooper read her own book. To my surprise, her younger years seemed very American, as she and her classmates lived in suburbs filled with new ranch and split-level houses. Many had video recorders with which to watch American television programs sent to them by relatives in the United States. They even ate American snack foods. Somewhat to Cooper's dismay, her family bought an isolated mansion on a beach far from all her friends. Every child got her own bedroom, but there were no friends to visit them. (Here's where the story strays from those of American children.) So her family adopted a poor girl to be Helene's similar-age sister. It was a very upper class Liberian thing to do. The girl was named Eunice, and she became a member of the family - except she did not get to go on vacations to Spain or attend the best school with Helene.

Cooper's privileged life ended when Samuel Kanyon Doe led a bloody coup, killing President Tolbert. Rebel soldiers spread across the country killing, raping, and stealing. (I'm not going to spoil the plot, but Cooper has a very dramatic story to insert right here.) After a nail-biting month, she and her family (without Eunice) escaped to America, starting Cooper's long-distance-but-never-out-of-mind relationship to her self-destructing country. She eventually graduated from college and became a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

The story of Liberia is very sad and can be very disturbing reading. Cooper does not avoid telling about despicable acts, but she also does not dwell on them. While telling some of the country's history, she is mostly interested in the fate of individuals. Readers will notice that Cooper has a slow political awakening, but she never really breaks with the class of her birth. Her unstated feelings are probably still conflicted, aware that her ancestors exploited the poorer classes, but she is still unforgiving toward the violent, unruly people who tore her country apart. The House at Sugar Beach is good reading.

Cooper, Helene. The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood. Recorded Books, 2008. ISBN 9781436164412


Citizen Reader said...

This was a fascinating book which I think deserved a lot more press than it got! Thanks for reviewing it here.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,
I had forgotten about this book!!
I added it to my list.
Thank you for loving books.