The House at Sugar Beach

A US journalist tells her story as one of Liberia's fallen elite.

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Working at The Wall Street Journal, Helene Cooper mightily enjoyed her status as one of a small group of reporters likely to go anywhere. Cooper headed off to Venice as readily as she jetted to Riyadh or Mauritius.

But it was in Iraq, as the US invasion began in 2003, that she thought about the one story that she wasn’t writing. “If I’m going to die in a war,” she realized, “it should be in my own country. I should die in a war in Liberia.”

Although she’d become a US citizen after college, the US wasn’t Cooper’s native land. She was born to parents of two of the most highly pedigreed families in all of Liberia – the closest thing that small West African nation had to royalty.

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In The House at Sugar Beach Cooper tells the story of her privileged childhood – and of its abrupt end as Liberia shattered around her.

Cooper is a journalist by trade and a storyteller to boot. Drawing on these skills, she crafts a tale of 1970s childhood complete with details that will feel oddly familiar to US readers. She lived in a luxurious “22-room behemoth” outside Monrovia, with shag rugs underfoot and Nancy Drew books and Jackson 5 albums at her disposal. What’s most surprising about Cooper’s story, however, is that she is able to tell it without losing our sympathy.

Much was wrong in Liberia and Cooper’s family embodied most of it. The country, founded in 1822 by freed American slaves, had two basic social classes. The ruling elite were “Congo people,” families like the Coopers descended from those original slaves. Only 4 percent of Liberia’s population, they controlled 60 percent of its wealth.

Everyone else (the indigenous populace) were “Country people” – largely poor and rural and utterly without status. Yet notions of inequity never occurred to families like the Coopers. Neither did the prospect of civil war. Fighting, they felt, “was for all those other postcolonial African countries who never could get their act together.”

The Coopers lived grandly in their house at Sugar Beach. When Helene was scared to sleep alone, they relied on a standard Congo practice and took a Country girl from her mother, bringing her home to be Helene’s new big sister.

Helene was 13 in 1980 when rebel soldier Samuel Doe overthrew the Liberian government and established his own cruel regime. The Coopers saw family and friends executed and finally fled for the US – all but adopted sister Eunice. Eunice’s latter story is entwined with that of Liberia itself.

Cooper’s memories both horrify and engage. She allows readers to sample Liberian English (“I hold your foot” is a favorite means of begging pardon) and Liberian customs (four-day funerals and a penchant for fancy dress). The result is an engrossing dual portrait of family and country that allows us to feel both the pangs of Cooper’s nostalgia and the ache of her regret.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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