Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book 94: The House at Sugar Beach

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

I originally heard about this book on another Pajiban's blog. Beyond the fact that Liberia was originally founded by freed black Americans, and that the capital was Monrovia, I didn't know much about Liberia's history. It was definitely very educational, and I liked Cooper's writing style.

Cooper was born in Liberia in 1966, and descended from two very important families within Liberian history. Her mother's ancestors were on the first boat from America in 1820, and her father's family came over in 1829. As a result, she led a very sheltered and pampered life. Her parents owned various properties and cars, and traveled every summer. While her family decided to take in Eunice, a young girl of Bassa descent to be a sister to Helene, Helene still didn't notice the class tensions within the country that much. There was always a strain between the country people, the descendants of people that had always been native to the country, and the Congo people, the descendants of Americans and other immigrants. The Congo people held most of the power and the riches despite being a minority. Naturally, this led to unrest, culminating in the coup in 1980. Following those events, Helene, her sister Marlene and mother escape to the United States while Eunice chooses to stay. Liberia, meanwhile, is plagued by political unrest and violence for years as a result of these events.

While Helene misses her life in Liberia and has a hard time fitting in at first, she dives into her new life and becomes a journalist who travels the world. However, she doesn't return back to Liberia for years, until after she covers the beginning of the Iraq war. As a journalist, she often reports on stories that seem to mirror the world she grew up in, but it's much easier to judge these stories from a distance as an adult than as a priviledged, young child. Cooper is definitely aware of the irony, which is why she included these tidbits. And honestly, given the disparity of wealth within Liberia, it is obvious that some type of reform was needed. It is understandable that there was a revolution but unfortunately, the revolution didn't lead to reform and a better life for everyone. Instead, it led to violence, a breakdown of infrastructure and persecution.

I enjoyed the way she worked in the background and thus gave a brief history lesson on Liberia. She also gave some background on what was happening to Eunice who stayed in Liberia. While I enjoy reading the stories and memoirs of ex-patriates, I would also love to read something like this from the other perspective - one of the "country people" or someone who stayed. It seems like many of these types of memoirs tend to be written by people that were already in priviledged situation to begin with (I'm thinking of Nazar Afisi and Iran, Edwidge Danticat and Haiti - Brother, I'm Dying is a great book, by the way), which makes sense because they had the resources for an education, to leave and possibly make contacts in the publishing world, but if anyone has recommendations for a different type of view, I would love to hear them.

No comments: