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The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhoodby Helene Cooper
Synopses & Reviews
Helene Cooper is “Congo,” a descendant of two Liberian dynasties—traced back to the first ship of freemen that set sail from New York in 1820 to found Monrovia. Helene grew up at Sugar Beach, a twenty-two-room mansion by the sea. Her childhood was filled with servants, flashy cars, a villa in Spain, and a farmhouse up-country. It was also an African childhood, filled with knock foot games and hot pepper soup, heartmen and neegee. When Helene was eight, the Coopers took in a foster child—a common custom among the Liberian elite. Eunice, a Bassa girl, suddenly became known as “Mrs. Cooper’s daughter.”
For years the Cooper daughters—Helene, her sister Marlene, and Eunice—blissfully enjoyed the trappings of wealth and advantage. But Liberia was like an unwatched pot of water left boiling on the stove. And on April 12, 1980, a group of soldiers staged a coup d'État, assassinating President William Tolbert and executing his cabinet. The Coopers and the entire Congo class were now the hunted, being imprisoned, shot, tortured, and raped. After a brutal daylight attack by a ragtag crew of soldiers, Helene, Marlene, and their mother fled Sugar Beach, and then Liberia, for America. They left Eunice behind.
A world away, Helene tried to assimilate as an American teenager. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill she found her passion in journalism, eventually becoming a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She reported from every part of the globe—except Africa—as Liberia descended into war-torn, third-world hell.
In 2003, a near-death experience in Iraq convinced Helene that Liberia—and Eunice—could wait no longer. At once a deeply personal memoir and an examination of a violent and stratified country, The House at Sugar Beach tells of tragedy, forgiveness, and transcendence with unflinching honesty and a survivor's gentle humor. And at its heart, it is a story of Helene Cooper’s long voyage home.
"Journalist Cooper has a compelling story to tell: born into a wealthy, powerful, dynastic Liberian family descended from freed American slaves, she came of age in the 1980s when her homeland slipped into civil war. On Cooper's 14th birthday, her mother gives her a diamond pendant and sends her to school. Cooper is 'convinced that somehow our world would right itself.' That afternoon her uncle Cecil, the minister of foreign affairs, is executed. Cooper combines deeply personal and wide-ranging political strands in her memoir. There's the halcyon early childhood in Africa, a history of the early settlement of Liberia, an account of the violent, troubled years as several regimes are overthrown, and the story of the family's exile to America. A journalist-as-a-young-woman narrative unfolds as Cooper reports the career path that led her from local to national papers in the U.S. The stories themselves are fascinating, but a flatness prevails — perhaps one that mirror's the author's experience. After her uncle's televised execution, Cooper does '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.'" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
On Feb. 6, 1820, the American Colonization Society, an incongruous mix of mostly Quakers and slaveholders, dispatched a ship from New York Harbor in a bold experiment to repatriate 88 freeborn blacks to Africa's steamy west coast. When the vessel arrived at its destination a few months later, its passengers, far from being welcomed, were regarded with hostile suspicion by a native population still... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) ruthlessly plying the slave trade. For two years, the increasingly ragged immigrants trolled that shore, burying their brethren in one malarial swamp after another until Elijah Johnson, a former U.S. soldier, finally stood on a tiny island that offered neither shelter nor fresh water and refused to move. A country called Liberia was founded. Helene Cooper, formerly with the Wall Street Journal and now diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, is Elijah Johnson's great-great-great-great-granddaughter. "The House at Sugar Beach" is her dramatic memoir of Liberia in the years preceding and after its savage revolution in 1980. Along with other descendants of freed black colonists, Cooper's family formed a decadent colonial elite firmly in control of Liberia's wealth and government. They were known as Congo people. The indigenous African tribes, which made up 95 percent of the Liberian population, subsisted in poverty. They were called Country people. When Cooper was 8, her father moved the family from the relative safety of Congo Town, a suburb of the capital Monrovia, to a three-storied mansion 11 miles out of the city on an isolated stretch called Sugar Beach. Their new house had five acres of lawn, central air conditioning and solid marble floors. It also had a toy room, playroom, recreation room, bar, sunken lounge and music room complete with a rock-faced wall and a baby grand piano overlooking the sea. At Sugar Beach, Cooper was fearful of the deep African night. Buried under bedclothes in her new pink bedroom, she whimpered until her exhausted parents finally summoned a Country girl to keep her company, apparently standard practice in that society. Soon a bewildered, bowlegged 11-year-old named Eunice Bull, skinny and stuttering, was obligingly delivered to the estate. She ran away from her new foster home twice, but each time her destitute mother dragged her back. "In Liberia in 1974, it was the chance of a lifetime to leave a poor Country family and move in with the Coopers," the author tells us. The Coopers were very good to Eunice. Sort of. They educated her, but not at their own daughters' expensive school; they provided her with fashionable clothes, but didn't take her on the family vacations to Spain. When Liberia exploded in violence in 1980, rebel solders gang-raped Cooper's mother in the house at Sugar Beach. They publicly executed her uncle, a member of the Liberian cabinet. The Coopers, along with most Congos, fled as Liberia spiraled into a maelstrom of unimaginable terror. They did not take Eunice with them. Helene Cooper went on to become a renowned American journalist, peering into practically every corner of the world but the land of her forefathers. It was only 23 years later, after a narrow escape as an embedded reporter in Iraq — "what a stupid place to die. What a stupid war to die in," she found herself thinking — that she had an epiphany and returned to Liberia to reclaim her childhood and reunite with her "Country sister." "The House at Sugar Beach" is the result: a brilliant spotlight on a land too long forgotten. Through Cooper, we breathe Liberia's coal smoke and fish-tangy air; we taste its luscious palm butter on rice and hear the charming patter of Liberian English. We trot to church, to the family plantation and to Grandma's house. Cooper is tongue-in-cheek about Congo excesses but sometimes skimpy on context. I had to look up the proportion of Congo to Country people, for example. Also, her often-confessed tendency to fasten on minutiae ("papering over a seismic moment in my life by focusing on the superficial," she calls it) works against narrative drive. As a white Zimbabwean, I am painfully familiar with how we old colonials tend to turn away. Sometimes it seems the only antidote to terror, wrenching loyalties and unspeakable guilt. Still, looking, really looking, might have added a level of emotional impact that this memoir doesn't quite reach. Eunice, on the other hand, seems to see with crystal clarity. When Cooper finally finds her in ruined Liberia, the adopted sister damns their relationship with faint praise: "Y'all were a good Congo group," she says. The throwaway observation had to have hurt. Cooper, I am certain, would join me in a fervent hope that the cruel distinctions between "groups" in Africa will one day vanish. Then, perhaps, our common humanity will be the only thing that counts. Wendy Kann is the author of a memoir, "Casting with a Fragile Thread: A Story of Sisters and Africa." Reviewed by Wendy Kann, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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In the tradition of "A Long Way Gone" and "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," a world-renowned journalist presents a haunting memoir of a war-torn Liberian childhood and her return to her native country, 20 years after her family's flight, to reunite with the foster sister they left behind.
About the Author
Helene Cooper is the White House correspondent for the New York Times, having previously served as the diplomatic correspondent and the assistant editorial page editor. Prior to moving to the Times, Helene spent twelve years as a reporter and foreign correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. She was born in Monrovia, Liberia, and lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
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