Monday, October 15, 2012

The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Connor

A benefit of a book club, is to learn about books that  I would not otherwise hear of, books that are not all the current rage, books I have missed over the years.  That introduces "The House at Sugar Beach"  published in 2008, an autobiography of Helene Cooper, a journalist with whom I was not familiar. But having read this, I look  for her columns now.   One of the women in our club has teen age Liberian grandchildren adopted by her  pastor son in law and wife so she found this book in her quest to learn about Liberia.

What little I knew of that country  is the history of how some of  the freed blacks prior to the Civil War migrated back to Liberia and how President Lincoln among others advocated  sending the freed slaves to Liberia.  Helene covers this history and traces her ancestry back to the initial migration in 1822, certainly far ahead of the time in history I knew.  In only 345 pages, Helene writes fully about the history of Liberia, the culture from the 1800's to today and the privileged  family life she experienced there, in a 22 room mansion, as the daughter of wealthy Liberians.  She vacations in America, Spain and Switzerland and a sister is attending school in America.  But in a moment with political uprisings life changes, turns hard and will never be the same.

I so  enjoyed learning about Liberian customs, phrases, and the political unrest and turmoils.  The phrase, "I hold your foot" conveys deepest admiration and is always said when sincerely pleading for something, even as a child.  She traces their ancestry back to Elijah Johnson a free black man in New York in 1787.  This book would be an eye opener for those who do not know much about the history of free blacks in this country and are under the impression that all blacks were slaves.

 The characters in her family are richly described and their experiences are touching and humorous.  The accepted practice of Liberian men having many wives or commonly more than one, or bouncing readily leaving one for another touches her own family although her mother  does not approve, they are a mixed household of children from her father's other wives.  They also "adopt" Eunice, a girl from a nearby village to be a "sister companion to Helene.  The Cooper family treat Eunice nearly as well as their own children, educating her and giving her a private room, which is beyond anything this child could have imagined.  However, when the family flees to America in 1980, following another political revolt, and the rape of Mrs. Cooper while her daughters huddle upstairs, they are not able to take Eunice along.  While Helene will never forget  Eunice, twenty three years pass until she returns to Liberia and they reunite. 

Back cover of paperback edition
As a journalist, she writes her story in a compelling way that made me turn the pages quickly.  I could offer many examples of excellent writing here, but one in particular touched me, page 187,"..  It was the same thing I would do for the rest of my life when something bad happens, I focus on something else.  I concentrate on minutiae.  It's the only way to keep going when the world has ended."  That demonstrates her wisdom.  She weaves all her experiences into the person she becomes, a strong woman, without a grudge.  Someone I know I would enjoy talking with.

Page..344..." In a few days, I would be packing up and leaving Monrovia.  I would bribe my way out of Robertsfield and onto Ghana Airways to Accra, and then onto British Airways to London and then to Washington, where Marlene would meet me and take me back to my house in our nice neighborhood with its quaint front porches and picket fences.  I would leave Eunice with the new Liberian cell phone that I had purchased, so she would never be unreachable for me again.  But phone or not, I would still be leaving her.  Eunice  would return to Firestone, to her husband, to her foster children and Sugar Beach would again be a memory.  Still, I knew which memory would prevail--the Sugar Beach of my childhood,....."

 She does not hide the gruesome  brutality, details of the revolts and the jealousy amongst the different native sects, making for some raw reading.  Yet  a mature reader will recognize this is all fact, truth, not sugar coated.   There are a series of discussion questions at the end and  an interview with Helene  who is a successful White House correspondent for the New York Times and who started after college as  a Wall Street Journal reporter becoming a traveling foreign correspondent which takes her all over the world.

 I give this book 5 ***** and recommend it for book clubs or anyone who wants to learn.