Thursday, April 02, 2009

Memoir Review: The House At Sugar Beach

There are books that you read purely for fun and entertainment, and there are books that actually enrich your life. The House At Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by Helene Cooper was definitely in the latter category for me. I finished the book last night and hungrily read every word of the Author’s Note, Acknowledgements, and Author’s Bio because I just didn’t want it to end. I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to Helene and her amazing family yet.

The House At Sugar Beach is actually two stories, interwoven. It’s the story of a girl’s childhood and evolution to adulthood, but it’s also the story of a country with a unique and fascinating past and a horrifying present.

Helene spent her first fourteen years living an idyllic and familiar kind of childhood at her family’s home in and near Monrovia, Liberia, in Africa. Helene’s story is a classic coming-of-age story, filled with normal childhood joys and fears, in a close, loving extended family. Some of Helene’s memories are ones every girl can relate to: days at the beach with her sisters, reading Nancy Drew books at night with a flashlight, and the typical adolescent angst surrounding her first crush.

Other memories are uniquely Liberian, like being afraid of rogues (robbers who come to your house at night) and neegees (mythical beings that can grab kids and pull them under the water while they’re swimming). Here she describes a local game her cousin taught her to play:

Tello was teaching me how to play knock-foot, a girls’ game where players hop on one foot and kick toward their opponents with the other foot. Knock-foot involved intricate maneuvers that need rhythm and balance. The Country People had thought it up. Knock-foot is sort of like rock, paper, scissors with feet. A good knock-foot session between two girls who know what they’re doing looks like dancing, with each girl bobbing, kicking, and clapping to a precise beat.

Liberia itself is like an extra character in the book, its unique history a backdrop to everything that happens in Helene’s life. Liberia, Africa’s first independent country, was established in the 1820’s by groups of free blacks from the United States. I was fascinated by this piece of history that I had never learned about in any of my Social Studies classes: in 1820, the American Colonization Society sent ships of freed black Americans back to Africa to establish a colony (which later became an independent state).

Helene describes how her distant ancestors continue to have a significant effect on her own life in the 20th century:

The chain started by those two men would eventually separate me from most black people in America, at the same time separating me from most black people in Africa. Their names were Elijah Johnson and Randolph Cooper. They were my great-great-great-great grandfathers. At the turn of the nineteenth century in pre-Civil War America, they both belonged to that nebulous class of freed-blacks-once-removed from southern plantations.

When presented the choice between America and Africa, they chose Africa. Because of that choice, I would not grow up, 150 years later, as an American black girl, weighed down by racial stereotypes of welfare queens. Nor would I have to deal with the burdens of a sub-Saharan African girl, with a life expectancy of about 40 years, yanked out of school at the age of eleven so I could fetch water and cook over a coal pot and bear babies barely younger than myself.

Instead, those two men handed down to me a one-in-a-million lottery ticket: birth into what passed for the landed gentry upper class of Africa’s first independent country, Liberia.

I must admit I had never heard of Liberia’s history before, and its uniqueness captivated me. Later, when Helene is a teenager, 150-year old class struggles between native Liberians and the American descendants finally erupt, as the country provides another kind of backdrop for Helene’s story, that of a nation torn apart by war and violence.

Helene’s story – and Liberia’s – was enthralling from start to finish. Her memoir was entertaining, educational, and enriching. You can’t ask for more than that from a book, can you?


  1. This sounds good Sue - I am looking for it at my library, thank you for directing me to this :)

  2. Sue, What a wonderful review. Thanks for referring it to me. I am over half done with the book and I know I should finish it but it keeps getting pushed aside. My family lived in Liberia when I was in elementary school so we have a particular interest in it. My mom has listened to it on audiobook and she loved it because Helene narrates it and uses Liberian Pidgeon-English, which we had to learn to understand while we were there. I will get to the book after I finish my current books that I must read for book clubs, etc. btw- you are a fabulous writer. I enjoy your reviews so much.

  3. Thanks so much for the wonderful compliment, Anne!

    I can't believe you used to live in Liberia! Want to get together for coffee and talk about it? haha