Friday, July 9, 2010

The House at Sugar Beach

The House at Sugar Beach:
In Search of a Lost African Childhood
by Helene Cooper
read by the author
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2008
9 hours and 30 minutes

Publisher's Description:
In this poignant memoir, New York Times journalist Helene Cooper tells the story of her privileged Liberian childhood cut brutally short by a bloody 1980 coup, her family's escape and survival, and twenty three years later, her return to her native country to find the foster sister her family left behind.

My thoughts:
The cheery yellow cover prominently displayed in area Starbucks first caught my eye, but it would take another year to download the audio version from  Although my knowledge of Liberia is limited, Cooper provided just the right amount of historical background to make sense of the political unrest, coups, and years of civil war. What I found even more fascinating, however, was the juxtaposition of political tensions with typical teenage concerns. While Cooper was growing up, the riots and executions occurred alongside the Sadie Hawkins dance, a new crush, and her reading of the latest trashy romance novels.

Cooper's family belongs to the elite group known as "Congo" people. Their ancestry can be traced to the first settlers of freemen that came from New York in 1820 and founded Monrovia. She was raised in a mansion with servants and attended private school. As was often the custom, the family took in a Bassa girl, named Eunice, as a foster child and raised her as their own. Her relatives held high government positions before the coup. Afterwards, some were executed and some fled. Eunice went back to her village when the Cooper family left in 1980.

"When we climbed aboard Pan Am 150, we were privileged, elite Congo People. When we arrived in Knoxville, we were African refugees."

Cooper's high school and college experience, cultural assimilation, and career in journalism (inspired by reading All The President's Men) is the focus of the rest of the book. A job with The Wall Street Journal job allowed her to travel the world, but Cooper would not go to Africa. It was a near-death experience in Iraq ("wrong country, wrong war") that finally convinced her to return to Liberia... and Eunice.

Bottom Line:
This was an excellent audio production. The author has a captivating writing style, but her own voice, especially when it came to Liberian English, added much to the experience. However, I also borrowed a print copy from the library since photos, maps, and a family tree are included.  Highly recommended.


  1. I swear I have about a dozen audios that I've ordered from the library after Audiobook Week. What's one more?

  2. I've got this book on my shelf. Glad to see you liked it. It sure sounds like a good one.

  3. This one sounds great...I'm currently listening to The Great Gatsby on a playaway. I'm hoping to get my iTouch this weekend and I'm sure that and I will become great friends!

  4. I loved the print version of this one as well. Amazing story.

    I'm finishing up listening to Pearl of China (also good)

  5. Sandy - Your list probably looks a lot like mine! I won't even tell you how many items I've added in the past two weeks...

    Darlene - This book really opened my eyes to what life was like for many African refugees, plus I really enjoyed learning about the history and customs of Liberia. Hope you enjoy it, too!

    Staci - is the best!! I first got a membership at the end of 2003 and have been renewing ever since.

    Diane - Pearl of China is on my amazon wish list, but I think I'll go preview the audio at audible. Glad to hear you loved Sugar Beach, too!

  6. Oh I'm am definitely going to listen to this one. Wow. I might have passed this right by without your recommendation. You know, I also often check the print version of a nonfiction book out of the library when I'm listening for just the same reason you did: the photos, the genealogies, and maps.

  7. I know next to nothing about Liberia! Thanks for featuring this book!

    I am currently listening to one of your other audio recommendations - Anne Tyler's Digging to America - it's great!

  8. Someday I plan to read a book about Liberia...and since there are very few books about Liberia out there, it might just have to be this one!

  9. Beth F - I hope you enjoy this one, too. I rarely borrow fiction hard copies from the library, but I seem to have gotten into the habit of taking a look at nonfiction. You never know what other goodies may be included!

    Booksnyc - I'm so glad you're enjoying "Digging to America"!! I liked the audio so much I went on to listen to Back When We Were Grownups and The Amateur Marriage. Tyler has become an "audio author" for me.

    Softdrink - Don't think you'll be sorry if this is the one you choose!

  10. I'm tbring this right now. Thanks

  11. Care - Oh, I love "tbr-ing" as verb!! Hope you enjoy the book, too.


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