|Helene Cooper's "The House at Sugar Beach": A Book Review|
|By: Wynfred Russell|
The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood
By: Helene Cooper
Publisher: Simon & Shuster, 352 pages, $25.00
Review: Shimmering….This book delves deeply and richly into Liberia’s unique history. Though Americo-Liberians may be the story’s main focus, their doubts, insecurities, tragedies, losses and heartbreaks belong to all who read this poignant biography.
The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper is a literary masterpiece; an astonishing and moving story about growing up in Liberia during its halcyon years. 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 violence, exile and civil war, and of her return to the country she fled over two decades ago in order to reconnect with her foster sister. It is a compelling idyll extracted from the broader pages of Liberia’s recent turbulent history.
In the opening pages, Cooper meticulously traces her lineage back to some of the pioneers of 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 the country’s ruling elites, the Americo-Liberians (aka “Congo people”), obscuring a growing resentment among the indigenous Liberians (aka “Country People”).
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 aftermath civil war struggles. The book is far more than just one Liberian woman's memoir. 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 of Monrovia, and a few jumps from Roberts International airport (Robertsfield), in a 22-room ultramodern house 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 that epoch, were turned upside down on April 12, 1980, when a bloody coup d’état changed life in Liberia forever. 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 House at Sugar Beach.
Isolated at Sugar Beach, the Cooper women were assaulted by foot soldiers of the military junta, with Helene’s mother submitting to gang rape 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 was abandoned to the macabre that became Liberia.
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 up 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 minimal contact until 2003 when Cooper decided to set aside her ambivalence about returning to Liberia. She was 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 a 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 now 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 Liberian-born journalist delivers a deeply emotional memoir, a historical perspective, and a story laced with Liberian-English phrases comingled 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 but 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 ‘butter pear’ (avocado). The narrative varies from psychologically nauseous and tactile passages to a more dispassionate recounting of some shocking events, revealing Cooper's journalistic acumen. As a fellow Liberian it makes me feel nostalgic about growing up watching girls play “Knock Foot” …“Kickball” …or ”Blind Man Can’t See”….it takes you back, way back to the good ole days.
Helene Cooper will unveil her book and speak about her experiences on Tuesday, September 16th at North View International Baccalaureate World School in Brooklyn Park from 5pm to 6pm.
Editor's Note: For more information, contact Normandale’s Center for Multicultural Services at 952-487-8131.