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Helene Cooper - The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood

A Childhood Interrupted


By Wynfred Russell

The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper is a literary masterpiece; an astonishing and moving memoir about growing up in Liberia during its heydays. The reader is swept up in the smells, sights, and innocence of Cooper's interrupted childhood. She tells the haunting story of her privileged Liberian family torn apart by civil war and exile, and of her return to the country she fled over two decades ago in order to reconnect with the foster sister who decided to stay behind. It is a compelling personal memoir extracted from the broader pages of Liberia's recent turbulent history.

The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood
By: Helene Cooper
Review: Shimmering….This book delves deeply and richly into Liberia's unique history. [But though] Americo-Liberians may be the stories' main focus, their doubts, insecurities, tragedies, losses and heartbreaks belong to all who reads this book.

In the opening pages, Cooper, meticulously traces her lineage back to some of the original settlers who helped found Africa's first independent republic, including two patriarchs Elijah Johnson and Randolph Cooper. She describes how class cleavages in Liberia based on assumptions of superiority was second nature among many Americo-Liberians (aka "Congo people"), obscuring a growing resentment among the indigenous Liberians (aka "Country People") and set against a backdrop of widespread political discontent brewing in the post-colonial African continent.

The historical sections on the founding of Liberia by manumitted African Americans in the early 19th-century are fascinating and informative. The same is true of Cooper's reporting on present-day Liberia and its lingering civil war struggles. The House at Sugar Beach is far more than just one Liberian woman's personal story. It's the story of a country - one that has long been tied to the United States of America. It is a story that holds significance for Liberians and Americans alike.

Cooper spent her formative years at Sugar Beach, a secluded enclave 11 miles outside Monrovia, and a few miles from Roberts International airport (Robertfield), in a 22-room architectural wonder overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. She and her siblings Marlene, Janice and John Bull attended the best private schools, grew up in opulence with servants, and spent vacations in Spain, Switzerland, and the United States. But her narrow perspective was expanded when the family took in a young Bassa girl, Eunice Bull, as a foster daughter. Helene and Eunice became inseparable sisters, sharing girlish obsessions with make-up, fashion, pop music, and unrequited crushes on boys.


The Cooper family fortunes like many Americo-Liberian families who were in power during the epoch were turned upside down on April 12, 1980, when a bloody coup d'état forever changed life in Liberia. Though Cooper and much of her family sought refuge in the U.S., her affection and loyalty to her homeland are eloquently presented in the pages of The House at Sugar Beach.

Isolated at Sugar Beach, the Cooper women were assaulted by soldiers, Helene's mother submitted to gang rape by soldiers in order to protect her daughters. After high-ranking former cabinet ministers, including one of her cousins, foreign minister C. Cecil Dennis, were publicly executed, the family fled to the United States. But Eunice elected to stay behind.

Cooper writes about adjusting to life in America - first in Knoxville, Tennessee, and later in Greensboro, North Carolina - which was a challenge, but she eventually found her niche. She studied journalism at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and became an international correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and now The New York Times, reporting from hot spots all over the globe. Back in Liberia, Eunice cobbled together what by African standards was a middle class life, despite the recurrence of political turmoil that at times left her jobless and in imminent danger.

The once undividable sisters had all but lost touch until 2003 when Cooper decided to set aside her ambivalence of returning to Liberia. Cooper had been on assignment for the Times, embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq when her military vehicle was in a terrifying accident. Lying in the Iraqi desert amidst the wreckage of her vehicle, Cooper had the realization: "I shouldn't die here…If I'm going to die in a war, it should be my own country. I should die in a war in Liberia." Finally revisiting her homeland a few months later, Cooper faced the ghosts of the past, including the house at Sugar Beach, which had been taken over by squatters. But the central reason for her trip was to see Eunice, and this powerful story culminates with their reunion, as Cooper learns the often harrowing details of her sister's experiences over the years. The meeting proves an emotionally-charged encounter of reconciliation and redemption.

In The House at Sugar Beach, the 42-year-old journalist delivers a deeply personal memoir, a historical perspective, and journalistic reporting in one book that you won't be able to put down; as she expertly recreates both the everyday joys and traumatic events that marked her and Eunice's lives.

Cooper writes: ''In my sheltered existence, I had never dug deep enough to wonder how much native Liberians resented us. I had been shocked [to learn] the level of hatred." But, how did Eunice feel? The answer is poetically revealed and marked by extreme intensity.

Cooper's book is impeccably written, and leaves readers feeling that they've experienced Liberia's beaches and lagoons, that they've tasted cassava leaf and butterpear (avocado). The narrative varies from emotional and tactile passages to a more dispassionate recounting of some shocking events, revealing Cooper's journalistic acumen. It makes you feel nostalgic about playing 'knock foot' as a kid growing up in Liberia…Blind man can't see….it took me back to the good ole days. It is page turner that will certainly be appreciated by all. - The End -

 

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