Helene Cooper recalls her privileged childhood in Liberia, her family’s escape to the U.S. after a military coup, and the accompanying painful separation from her foster sister Eunice. Decades later, Cooper returns to her war-ravaged homeland to find the sister she left behind.
Country Focus: Liberia
The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood
by Helene Cooper (Liberian-American)
Originally published: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
My edition: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2009. 345 pgs.
Acclaim: New York Times Bestseller; 2008 National Book Critics Circle Awards Nominee for Best Autobiography; New York Times Notable Book; A Washington Post Best of 2008 Book
Helene Cooper describes 1970s Liberia as generally split into two classes: the wealthy, ruling “Congo people” – the descendants of freed American slaves who founded Liberia, and poor “Country people” – the indigenous population (made up of 28 different tribes). A member of the former, Cooper begins her memoir in 1973, when she is eight years old and living in a mansion on Sugar Beach.
Cooper may be one of country’s elite, but she is too scared to sleep alone her room. Her parents put a call out for a “live-in playmate”. A Country woman responds and turns over her 11-year-old daughter Eunice Bull to the Coopers.
Cooper explains that Country parents willingly gave their children to Congo families to raise so that their son or daughter would be able to attend school and grow up amid conveniences like electricity, running water and bathrooms.
Despite their different backgrounds and Cooper’s innocently voiced prejudices, she, her younger sister Marlene and Eunice become inseparable. But as their personal lives gather steam – Helene’s high school crush returns her affections and Eunice prepares to attend college in America – so do political tensions between the Country and the Congo people. On April 12, 1980, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe and his fellow soldiers staged a violent military coup, murdering President Tolbert and 26 others. The Coopers, who had close ties to the overthrown government, promptly returned Eunice to her mother and fled to America.
Cooper goes on to describe her gradual rise to journalistic success and her guilt for losing touch with Eunice. In 2003, Cooper returns to war-torn Liberia, then deemed one of the “World’s Most Dangerous Places”, to find her long-lost sister.
In The House at Sugar Beach, Cooper matter-of-factly reveals her youthful naivety surrounding the Congo/Country division. As an adult, she struggles to balance her fond memories of childhood with the guilt that her beloved foster sister, her family’s servants and a large portion of the population were not treated as equals. The journalist in Cooper keeps the reader at somewhat of a distance, but the fascination she engenders with the history of Liberia, the country’s culture and vernacular, and her family more than make up for her emotional restraint. The House at Sugar Beach is lucid, well-paced, informative and engaging.
How Cooper lets you know you’re not in America anymore…
- Your presidential candidate campaigns with the slogan “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him anyway.”*
- Your Santa Claus wears a grass skirt, bone necklace, wooden mask and a blond wig, stands on stilts and is accompanied by three drummers who sing “We-ah, we-ah, Santa Claus we-ah, aye“**
- Your father has had children with so many different women that when you are asked about your relationship to a sibling, you answer either “same Pa” (meaning that you share the same father but not the same mother), “same Ma” (if you share the same mother but not the same father) or “same Ma, same Pa” (if you share the same parents).***
*Charles Taylor won the 1997 Liberian Presidential election using this catchphrase
**How Cooper describes the Santa that visits her at Sugar Beach in 1977
***In Cooper’s case, she has three siblings who are “same Pa” and a younger sister who is “same Pa, same Ma”
…and then reveals that Liberians aren’t so different after all:
In my book (or what Liberia means to me and maybe you, too)
“an exceptional violator of human rights”*
On a Sunday morning in 2003, I was eating my Eggos while flipping through Parade Magazine and ran across a list of “The World’s 10 Worst Dictators.” That’s when I first learned about the villainy of Charles Taylor, the (now former) Liberian president. The name “Charles Taylor” bespeaks more New England accountant than notorious African warlord, and in fact Taylor actually earned an economics degree at Massachusetts’ Bentley University in 1977. His old roomies are probably akin to the stunned coworkers of serial killers who tell investigative reporters “…but he seemed like such a nice guy!”
In his current, nearly four-year-long trial at The Hague, Taylor denies all eleven charges he faces:
Five counts of war crimes: terrorizing civilians, murder, outrages on personal dignity, cruel treatment, and looting
Five counts of crimes against humanity: murder, rape, sexual slavery, mutilating and beating, and enslavement
One count of other serious violations of international humanitarian law: recruiting and using child soldiers
Judges are expected to reach a verdict this July. If Taylor is found guilty, the maximum sentence he faces is life imprisonment.
*Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp on Charles Taylor