This is my favorite type of book: a coming of age story of a 40 something woman that is set in a place that I want to learn about. I don’t think that I would have had the patience to sit through a factual book about Liberia but when told through the eyes of Helene the culture and history was very engaging.
Helene grew up in a fancy house named “Sugar Beach”. Because of her family history she grew up almost as if she were royalty. Ironically she led a very priviledged, upper class life in a very poor country. As her parents raised their children they also raised a foster daughter named Eunice who lived as one of her sisters.
She paints the beauty and irony of this country in page after page. At one point she writes: “Liberia had become a destination point for black people from all over the world.”
She desribes her country as a boiling pot that had a lot of tension building because of the class system which she benefited from. The pot came to a boil during a coup which took place in 1980 when Helene was a middle school girl whose only real issue at the time was landing the hottie from the basketball team.
During the coup, her family witnessed many horrors including the murder of several of her family friends and ultimately they left Liberia to stay in Knoxville Tennesse. She humorously writes that she left Liberia as priviledged, elite Congo girl and landed in Knoxville as an African refugee.
As I read the book I was amazed at how quickly Helene passes between very serious issues happening to her country and her family to silly superficial things like clothes, pop culture and boys. But frankly, that was part of the appeal for me and how it kept me from being too depressed as I read the book. Helene admits this as she describes how she dealt with the separation of her foster sister, Eunice. She says that sometimes when it was more than she could handle she did what she always did. Focus on the superficial.
This pattern of hers takes her all the way through her young career as she travels the world over only to avoid the conflict in her home country. At one point she finds herself in Iraq in a dangerous situation and she says: “my career choices led me to this point. And now I was in the wrong country for the wrong war.”
I won’t spoil the ending but I will say that she wraps it all up very nicely and you walk away from this book not only learning a lot about Liberia but understanding and loving Helene all the more for the way she resolves her issues with her country and with her foster sister.
This is a good book club read with good discussion, writing and dialogue. I give it a 4. Read it.