The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood
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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.
Freetown, Sierra Leone, was a bustling mass of people with sheep, pigs, chickens, and dogs adding to the cacophony. At the market, the new colonists saw all kinds of tropical produce, from plump mangoes to juicy pineapples to butterpears and breadfruit and pawpaws. The native West Africans stared at the motley group from the Elizabeth: black men dressed in Western garb, quoting the Scriptures. In the afternoon, two of the passengers walked up to a group of native West African men playing a game.
abolished slave trade on the high seas. British patrols seized slave ships leaving the West African coast for America and returned those captured to Liberia and Sierra Leone, whether they came from there or not. Since many of the slave ships entered the Atlantic from the mouth of the massive Congo River, the native Liberians, many of whom happily engaged in the slave trade and didn't like this new business of freeing the slaves and dumping them in Liberia, called the newcomers Congo People.
paved road to Kakata for about forty-five minutes, passing streams of farmers walking their produce in the opposite direction, back toward Monrovia. On the hot tarmac, they stepped out of our way onto the road's dirt shoulder when we passed. Daddy blew his horn when one man didn't get out of the way fast enough. "You tryin' to get run over?" he leaned across the four of us in the cab and yelled at the man through the passenger window. We slowed down as we entered Kakata. Market women, balancing
to pass Daddy and Uncle Julius's gas station on the left: John L. Cooper Enterprises, named after grandpa Radio Cooper. There was rarely any gas there, but Daddy and Uncle Julius also had two shops. One sold toys and the other sold chocolate milk and ground peas and beer. "I better not see John sitting under the tree drinking," Mommee muttered. If Daddy was drinking, he wasn't doing it under the big mango tree in front of the shop today. The only person lounging under the tree, with a nice
imprisoned with him that trial or no trial, he thought they'd all be executed. "You don't seem to understand," he had told the others. "These boys are going to kill us." The soldiers came to the VW bus for the remaining four. Clarence Parker walked quickly to a pole, turned and faced the firing squad, and smiled slightly. A single shot later, he was dead. The soldiers then sprayed all thirteen bodies with automatic fire, emptying, and then replacing, their ammunition clips. The American