Monday, June 22, 2015

The House at Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper

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.

My thoughts:
This is a perfect example of a Memoir that reads like a novel.  Helene Cooper recounts her childhood growing up privileged in with a nice house, fancy cars, Nancy Drew books, vacation abroad and her very own "Bassa" sister Eunice.  I was drawn to the story as in many ways, Helene's childhood mirrors my own.  I grew up in a house about 2 miles from the beach, had household help, singing Blessed Assurance in church on Sundays and reading Nancy Drew books.

Prior to reading this Memoir, I had no idea Liberia was a colony formed by freed slaves way back when.  Helene weaved stories of her childhood while adding snippets of the social and political climate in Liberia at that time. I was saddened by the breakdown of the government though to be honest, that system with the powerful rich vs the weakened poor would never work for an extended period of time. 

You will need to read this book to learn about the tragedy and heartbreak this country faced as well as the beginnings of peace and hopefully prosperity in the region.

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