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

Simon and Schuster, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7432-6624-6.
Reviewed by Mary Jo Doig
Posted on 12/27/2008
Review of the Month, January 2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus;

New York Times' diplomatic correspondent Helene Cooper has written a simply stunning memoir of her African childhood in The House at Sugar Beach.

Cooper has penned the story of her Liberian childhood, its affluence brought about by choices of her ancestors: newly-freed, early nineteenth-century slaves who returned to Africa, purchase large tracts of land, and build the new nation of Liberia. In that process, they transformed their lives from former slaves into wealthy cabinet leaders in many areas of Liberia's government. This beautiful memoir is also the story of Cooper and her adopted sister, Eunice, a child of Liberia's poverty, who was brought into the Cooper's home as a companion for Helene.

In her teen years, life abruptly changed for Cooper when the Liberian leaders were violently overthrown in a coup. Her prominent uncle's execution was filmed and then shown on television. Cooper's father became a wanted man. When soldiers came to pillage the huge house at Sugar Beach, Cooper's mother instructed the girls to stay in their room while she went into the cellar. There, we later learn, she submitted to a gang rape so the soldiers would leave her daughters untouched.

When the Coopers fled Liberia for the United States, Eunice returned to her natural family and their grinding poverty. Decades passed while Cooper adapted to life in the US, completed high school in Tennessee, graduated from college, became a journalist, and started writing for a small New England newspaper. There she wrote the haunting story of her natural sister's escape from Liberia, which drew a job offer from the Wall Street Journal, launching her successful career.

In time, assigned to stories all over the world, Cooper had a near-death experience while covering the Iraq war. As she lay injured, she reflected that Iraq was not the place where she wanted to die. In a moment of truth, she understood that the Iraq war reminded her of the Liberian war two decades earlier, and she decided to return to Liberia and find Eunice.

If you, like me, have possessed fairly limited knowledge of Liberia's history, you will learn so much about Cooper's homeland. And, if you happen to be a woman, like me, working on (or considering) writing a memoir, you will both appreciate and well utilize many of the wise, varied suggestions from Cooper's family members that are described at the end of the book. Their collective wisdom helped Cooper transform her story from what started as a journalistic report into one of a tender, deeply moving memoir.

The House at Sugar Beach is easily the best book I have read this year. I plan read it again soon.

The House at Sugar Beach is Helene Cooper's first book. In 2002, she also edited a novel featuring selected stories written by her friend and then-fellow Wall Street Journal writer, Daniel Pearl before he was kidnapped and murdered by Pakistani Islamic extremists. Born in Monrovia, Liberia, presently living in Washington, DC, Cooper joined the NY Times in 2004 as an assistant editorial page editor. Previously, she was a reporter and foreign correspondent at the Wall Street Journal for 12 years.

(See another review of this book, here)

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