Cooper - The House at Sugar Beach: In
Search of a Lost African Childhood
By Wynfred Russell
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
House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost
By: Helene Cooper
.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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
.it took me back to the good
ole days. It is page turner that will certainly
be appreciated by all. - The End -