Jan 10, 2019

The House at Sugar Beach

in Search of a Lost African Childhood
by Helene Cooper

Descendant of the first freed blacks who stepped off the ship Elizabeth onto the shores of Liberia in 1820. They were part of this idea that people released from slavery at the end of the Civil War should return to Africa and form their own colony there. The native Liberians didn't see it the same way. They didn't want to sell their land to newcomers, or seen it taken by force. Which it eventually was. Generations later, the newer-arrived blacks had formed a very elite upper class, while the native Liberians sunk deeper into poverty and oppression. The author herself had a rather sheltered, privileged childhood, talking mostly about her jokes with her cousins and sisters, fears of the 'heartman' and malevolent spirits, reading Nancy Drew books and vying for the attention of boys in her private school. She was very close with her adopted sister, a girl from a native Liberian family her parents took in. Her narrative is interrupted every other chapter or so with some history- which I appreciated because I didn't know much about Liberia, but it felt a bit impersonal. Also a lot of family history and politics- because many of her relatives were prominent citizens or high officials. When Liberia suffered a coup and horrendously brutal civil war, the family fled to America- leaving behind her adopted sister. Later part of the book tells how she adjusted to American life- more school stuff- how she discovered journalism and fixed on a desire to be a reporter. She made it- attained the coveted travelling status, visited and wrote about issues in many different countries (including Iraq) and finally returned to Liberia, where she found her left-behind sister had survived the atrocities. I admit I skipped and skimmed a lot in the middle of the book, finding the information riveting in one way, but lacking a feeling of connection or emotion from the writer on the other hand. It was a bit difficult to stick with. I found some things ironic- and the description of a man executed in Liberia, then his body parts paraded around the streets- was a chilling echo of the fears she had of the 'heartmen' as a child. They were real. The final chapters about her return home- seeing how much had changed, fallen into squalor, the tearful reunion with her adopted sister- are the better parts of the book.

Rating: 2/5             354 pages, 2008


bermudaonion said...

I like the idea of this book but will skip it since you skimmed a lot of it.

Literary Feline said...

I had a copy of this one, but gave it away when I lost interest in it. I don't regret that now after reading your thoughts on it. Her story does sound interesting though; I'll give it that.