Cassy's Reviews > The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood

The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper
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's review
Jul 12, 14

bookshelves: non-fiction-biography, from-grad-school, 2009, physical-own, non-fiction-political, event-met-author
Recommended to Cassy by: The unversity's Common Reading program
Read in September, 2009

If you enjoyed this book, you should check out My Colombian War by Silvana Paternostro. Their stories are remarkably similar: (a) the narrator is part of the rich, privileged class in a predominantly poor country. (b) Her ancestors are important founders of her country and she lives a charmed childhood up until increasing violence forces her to flee the country in her teens – (c) leaving behind the lower-class girl her parents had semi-adopted to be her friend. (d) She immerses herself in the American culture and largely ignores the deteriorating conditions in her birth country. (e) Once she becomes an journalist covering international stories, she decides to revisit her birth country despite the dangers and rediscovers herself. It is literally the same story – just change the setting to Colombia instead of Liberia.

Yet, Cooper’s writing is far easier and more enjoyable to read than Paternostro’s. And despite her lavish up-bringing, she miraculously does not come off as a spoiled brat. I also loved that she expanded her book beyond a self-memoir to include the history of Liberia’s founding, its political upheaval, and loads of fascinating insights in Liberian culture (including various expressions like “oh, white man can lie, oh" and yummy-sounding foods like palm butter). I was intrigued as she clearly traced her ancestors back to the 1800s – something I would love to do for myself someday. Overall, her book is charming, easy to read, and insightful. I certainly feel like I learned something about Liberia – a country that before I could point out on a map but that’s about it.

The book's only perceived drawbacks are as follows:

(1) Cooper has a tendency to repeat herself a lot. Not major parts, but details such as “my aunt so-and-so was married to so-and-so” and then one chapter later “I visited my aunt so-and-so, who was the wife of so-and-so”. Her cast of characters and other elements were easy enough to follow, and these repetitions were unnecessary.

(2) Also, she herself does not play a big role in Liberia’s political scene (although members of her extended family certainly did). So her story is mainly focused on her childhood with her limited perspective of the coup as it happened and then as an adult reflecting back and conducting researching.

(3) Moreover, Copper glazed over her career as a globe-trekking journalist. I understand the focus of the book was her reconnection to her birth country. Yet I still would have enjoyed a larger section on her career instead such a superficial treatment.

(4) Last, I wrote earlier that her memoir is insightful. Yet she fails to illuminate one big irony: her ancestors, free blacks in slavery-based society, left behind the oppressive U.S. to sail to West Africa only to set up a society where they became the oppressors.

To conclude, I was lucky enough to attend a speech by Cooper. She was down-to-earth, self-effacing and answered the audience’s questions about her personal life with candor. However, she is not the most polished speaker and the majority of her speech consisted of her reading passages from this book. She definitely expresses herself better in writing, and that's okay.
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