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The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood [Hardcover]

Helene Cooper


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Book Description

Sept. 2 2008
Journalist Helene Cooper examines the violent past of her home country Liberia and the effects of its 1980 military coup in this deeply personal memoir and finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award.

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.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (Sept. 2 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743266242
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743266246
  • Product Dimensions: 2.8 x 15.9 x 21.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 440 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #585,561 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Journalist Cooper has a compelling story to tell: born into a wealthy, powerful, dynastic Liberian family descended from freed American slaves, she came of age in the 1980s when her homeland slipped into civil war. On Cooper's 14th birthday, her mother gives her a diamond pendant and sends her to school. Cooper is convinced that somehow our world would right itself. That afternoon her uncle Cecil, the minister of foreign affairs, is executed. Cooper combines deeply personal and wide-ranging political strands in her memoir. There's the halcyon early childhood in Africa, a history of the early settlement of Liberia, an account of the violent, troubled years as several regimes are overthrown, and the story of the family's exile to America. A journalist-as-a-young-woman narrative unfolds as Cooper reports the career path that led her from local to national papers in the U.S. The stories themselves are fascinating, but a flatness prevails—perhaps one that mirror's the author's experience. After her uncle's televised execution, Cooper does the same thing I would do for the rest of my life when something bad happens: I focus on something else. I concentrate on minutiae. It's the only way to keep going when the world has ended. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

"You must read Cooper's wildly tender memoir. It's that rarest of things, a personal story that transcends the people, the place, the world it is talking about and becomes a universal tale about the thousands of segregations, small and large, subtle and obvious, that shred all of us. It is beautifully written, utterly unself-conscious, and without a hint of self-pity. Cooper has an un-failing ear for language and a poet's tender heart. A powerful, important book that will teach you not only something about war and love, race and power, loss and hope, but also a great deal about yourself." -- Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood and The Legend of Colton H. Bryant

"Helene Cooper's memoir is a remarkable page-turner: gripping, perceptive, sometimes hilarious, and always moving. Her keen eye, fierce honesty, and incisive intelligence open a window on war-torn Liberia, America, and the stunning challenge of a life that straddles these deeply intertwined societies." -- Jeffrey D. Sachs, special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and author of The End of Poverty

"The tragedy of Liberia -- the most American of all the African tragedies -- is brought painfully to life in Helene Cooper's memoir. Her work is an antidote to statistics and headlines and the blur of Africa's sorrows, a reminder that history and war proceed one family at a time, one person at a time. They are never abstract, always personal." -- Arthur Phillips, author of Prague, The Egyptologist, and Angelica

"Rendered with aching nostalgia and wonderful language -- is a voyage of return, through which the author seeks to recover the past and to find that missing sister, even as the war deepens over the years to come. Elegant and eloquent, and full of news from places about which we know too little." -- Kirkus (Starred review)

"Among Cooper's aims in becoming a journalist were to reveal the atrocities committed in her native country. With amazing forthrightness, she has done so, delivering an eloquent, if painful, history of the African migratory experience." -- Ms. Magazine

"Masterly.... Nothing short of brilliant." -- The New York Times Book Review

"There is tenderness in this memoir, and Cooper is clear-eyed even as she tells of her loss." -- The New Yorker

"To understand what happened in Liberia is to understand what has happened in much of Africa, and Cooper tells it not like a seasoned journalist -- which is what she is -- but like a poet." -- Entertainment Weekly

"Nearly three decades after fleeing Liberia, Cooper offers an indelible view of her homeland and makes palpable the pain that she felt when she lost it." -- People --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  144 reviews
121 of 128 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Going Home Through the Pages of a Book. Sept. 8 2008
By The Elephant's Child - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Ms. Cooper's story is, in so very many ways, my story, too. I grew up in Liberia, a "second-class" American because we were missionaries and not American Embassy personnel. My years at the American Cooperative School overlapped hers; I had the same first grade teacher as her little sister. I bought ice cream at Sophie's (mind the flies!) and ate hamburgers at Diana's. How many times I drove past that same three-headed palm tree! Like her, I left in my early teens, without properly saying goodbye.

Samuel K. Doe's coup d'etat stole Ms. Cooper's childhood; Charles Taylor's invasion in late 1989 stole mine.

Much has been said about Liberia's descent into chaos. But what is never spoken of, in all the reports and documentaries, is the old Liberia - the Liberia that I love, the Liberia of my heart, the Liberia of people who have never given up hope, even in the darkest hour, that they can rebuild out the ashes of evil.

It will be several years yet before I can make the trip that Ms. Cooper has, and return home. I'd like to stand in our old house on Old Road, if only just to prove that the first 15 years of my life weren't a dream. Maybe the mango tree is still there. In the meantime, I have her book, to help me remember that I have come from somewhere. Home is still there, in the coalpots and red dirt roads, in the potato greens and the palm butter, in the sound of the ocean at night.

For all the horrors that war has visited upon my hometown, Liberia stands. The rice bird still sings.
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Could not put the book down Sept. 7 2008
By T. Tomaszkiewicz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I eagerly awaited the release of Cooper's book after reading the excerpt in the New York Times Magazine earlier this spring. The book arrived and did not disappoint. I could not put the book down and finished it in one sitting. Cooper's writing is honest, sincere and raw. I found myself drawn to her childhood and her adventures as if they were my own. While Cooper leaves out answers to many questions I had about her life in high school and college, she does come full circle in acknowledging the impact of her childhood on her life today. A masterful book. I was left wanting to read more about the Coopers.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Descent Into Madness For Liberia Sept. 6 2008
By C. Hutton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Helene Cooper has written a memoir of her privilege African childhood in Liberia before the slaughters of the civil war destroyed the country and her lifestyle. Descended from a family of strong women, she comically describes their mansion at Sugar Beach before the horrors of the soldiers. Written in a you are there style, she conveys all changes of coming to America as a nobody and remaking herself as a journalist. The last part of the book concerns her journey homeward to search for a lost foster sister and to come full circle again.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A. Drinnen Sept. 13 2008
By A. Drinnen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I finished The House at Sugar Beach in a day an a half; I just could not put it down. Helene Cooper objectively and clearly paints a picture of privilege and wealth of the Congo People in the country of Liberia, West Africa, as they lived and interacted with the poverty and subjugation of the Native people. She is able to make the reader see and feel the emotions and tensions of the country just before it's entire infrastructure was destroyed by a horrible Civil War. She reminisces through her childhood in want of nothing, and carries the reader along as she struggles with fears of the unknown spirit world, the pomp and formality of her social strata, and the joy of life that was so abundant in everyone during those prewar years. We get to intimately know her family and their outstanding importance to the history of the settlement of the country. She helps us understand how the tensions arose that caused such devastation to the only country in Africa that America helped settle; and she describes the horrors the War brought to her family as they fled the country in fear of their lives. As she noted, her family "boarded the plane in Liberia as "privileged, elite Congo People", but arrived at their destination in America as "African refugees."

Cooper then tells us about her adjustments and growth in her new home; and about the schools and attitudes in the South about the "new kid" with the funny accent. It took a while, but Cooper comes full circle with her emotions and finally was able to return to her country and face her beloved, but destroyed past. She finds satisfaction in the fact that the country of Liberia has survived along with a few faithful people who represented a vital part of her family.

The reader is on a roller coaster of emotion as Cooper makes us cry and laugh, sympathize and get angry on almost every page. This book is an excellent read for the early American or African history buff, for the person who just wants a really good story of the maturing of a young girl through family struggles and situations of life, and most especially for anyone who has ever had any contact at all with West Africa.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Coming Full Circle: From America to Africa and Back Again Dec 1 2008
By Dera R Williams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Covering the Middle East War in 2003, correspondent Helene Cooper had memories of another war; the war that tore her away from the place of her birth, Liberia. In The House on Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood Cooper wrote a gripping memoir that is not only a family history, but a social, cultural and historical account of this country.

Cooper is a direct descendant of the first black Americans who migrated to Liberia in the 1820s to establish a haven for freed blacks. Elijah Johnson, her maternal ancestor and Randolph Cooper, her paternal ancestor, were pioneers in the Back to Africa movement with help from the British government to start over in West Africa. Within a few years, the new settlers succeeded in not only building a new community, but became the ruling class with all of the privileges and advantages that came with it. A class divide emerged and the newcomers were deemed "Congo" while the natives were called "Natives" or the derogatory term "Country." Cooper's family lived in a twenty-two room mansion by the sea called Sugar Beach replete with servants and a privileged life that included private schools and a summer home in Spain. Her father was a government official and many other family members had positions of power in the cabinet.

When Cooper was nine years-old, her family took in a girl from the Bassa tribe to be a companion to Cooper and her younger sister, Marlene. It was common practice for Congo people to "adopt" Native children; the Congo family got help and the Native child was taken out of impoverished conditions and given an education. Eunice was an integral part of the family for the most part but when a coup occurred in 1982, Cooper's family fled Liberia, leaving Eunice behind. The Natives, after years of oppression and unable to rise above their station in life, decided to take matters in their own hands, wrestling power away from the Congo elite.

Cooper's acclimation to the United States was a culture shock and like many immigrants, her family's lifestyle drastically changed. Her family first moved to Tennessee where she had difficulty making friends. It was in college that she came into her own and eventually became a journalist working for several prominent newspapers including The Washington Journal and The New York Times. It was over twenty years before Cooper set foot on Liberian soil and reunited with her long lost sister, Eunice.

This was a powerful story, one that was an education for me and members of my online and local book club members. Most of us remember the media reporting on the war in Liberia and the reigns of presidents Tolbert and Charles Taylor but felt disconnected to the turmoil that was occurring. This book brought to life the cultural aspects, including intra-racial and class divisions, the oppression of the Native people, and a keen awareness of the analogy of American slavery of Africans juxtaposed against the oppression of Native Africans by freed Black Americans. The political and historical aspects of this memoir are a great addition to the growing number of African childhood war stories that have graced the literary arena in the last few years. 4.5 rating

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