Sunday, January 10, 2010

The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper


Miss Cooper manages to tell the story of her upbringing, and the eventual overthrow of the Liberian ruling elite with the innocence of a child and the wisdom of a women who has lived through violence and upheaval that most can't begin to fathom.  

Helene Cooper is a descendant of the founder of Liberia and can trace her ancestors on her mother and father's side back to the first ships arriving in Africa to form the country of Liberia.   As the descendant of freed slaves, she is a Congo person.    A person of elite status in Liberia.   A person that grows up in a home of 22 rooms surrounded by family living in equal privilige.   A person that grows up not paying much attention to the growing unrest of the native people pushed aside by the Congo people.  

Night after night Helene creeps into her parents' bed to avoid the fears of many African children -exspecially the heartmen.    Helene's parents wishing for a night of peace do what Congo people have done for generations.   They send out the word that their daughter needs a playmate.    A Bassa women appears with her daughter ready to give her to Helene's family.   It is a chance in a lifetime for this Bassa girl, Eunice.   Eunice is treated as one of the family even though there are differences that I think Helene doesn't acknowledge.   Eunice and another adopted sister do not travel to Europe and American with the rest of the family on vacations.   They do not attend the same private schools with Helene and her sister, Marlene. And yet, Helene and Eunice develop a bond of sister that transcends class differences.

This story is told in the enduring dialect of Liberia.    At first it seems hard to follow, but very quickly becomes part of the story.   And when Helene switches to "culler" or American English, the reader yearns for the Liberia dialect to return along with the times of innocence and simplicity it represents in Helene's life. 

Helene's childhood ends one horrible day at Sugar Beach when her mother has to make a devastating sacrifice to protect all her girls.   Things change that day for Helene.   Her beloved home, her high school crush, her sisterhood with Eunice, her relationship with her mother, her feeling of security are all ripped out from under her.   Life goes on.   And Helene takes us on the journey through the changes and journey that brings her back to the house on Sugar Beach.

I loved this story.   I took the time to reread it.   I learned so much about the history and politics of Liberia, but mostly the story of Helene's life is what drew me in.    One night after forcing myself to stop reading, I found myself unable to stop worrying about one of the characters.   Where was she?  What might have happened to her?  Would she be found?   And there in lays the talent of Helene Cooper as an author, the ability to draw you so far into the story that you feel these are your people too.


  1. This sounds like an incredible book. Thank you for sharing (rushing off to add it to my list)!

  2. The history, politics and culture of Liberia have always been fascinating to me. I hope to travel there within the next year. Thank you for sharing this wonderful review, and for bringing this book to my attention! I can't wait to find a copy and pick it up.

    Also, thanks for subscribing!

    -- Eileen