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Review: New York Times writer Helene Cooper talks of war, privilege in 'Sugar Beach' memoir

Descended from two powerful families in Liberia, 13-year-old Helene Cooper lived a privileged life in a richly furnished, air-conditioned house so big that the children were afraid to sleep alone. There was a summer house in Spain; there were trips to visit relatives in America.

In The House at Sugar Beach, Cooper, a diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, tells the story of her carefree early life and her family's abrupt downfall in the context of the complex and tumultuous history of Liberia since 1820, when the first American colonists landed.

Thanks to freed American slaves who established a beachhead in Liberia and rose to power, Helene and her siblings and half-siblings were "Congo," or ruling class. The Congo people controlled both government and commerce in Liberia.

Ensconced in an aggressively modern house far from the center of town, the children had reasons to be afraid at night. In addition to the child's collection of haunts, there were rogues — thieves who crept into your house by night and stole treasures. As it turns out, there was reason to fear the angry, indigenous population displaced by those 19th century colonists. The family's descendants had enemies among the "country" people.

As a kid, Helene knew nothing of this. She resented being moved to the sticks, hated being alone in her luxurious new bedroom. Everything and everybody she cared about was back in "Congo town," a high-end neighborhood of busy Monrovia. In an attempt to please her, the family took in Eunice, a "country" girl whose mother hoped the Coopers would provide her a better life. Eunice was not so sure.

Showing her around the palatial house, Helene reports, "This new girl had better be taking note that this was no flim-flack family she was moving in with, I thought. We had a sister who went to boarding school in England! . . . I slid Eunice a sideways glance before I started 'talking cullor' — Liberian slang for putting on airs by speaking with an American accent."

In spite of bonding with Helene's despised baby sister, Marlene, Eunice responded by running away. Each time, her mother brought her back. Eventually she and Helene became close friends, gossiping about schoolyard crushes and sharing hopes because the Coopers were planning to send Eunice to college. She, too, might become a "been-to," somebody who, like Helene, had traveled to the mythical United States.

Meanwhile, alarming things are happening. A man with a machete comes out of the bush, pursuing a kid friend of Helene's. "The heartman steadily gained on Richard, until Richard, looking back, could see the carvings on his face." The city is in turmoil. The government falls. Helene's uncle is executed, along with her friend's father. While the Cooper girls cower upstairs, revolutionary soldiers rape their mother on the ground floor of their house. The family will leave the country soon. Eunice chooses to stay behind.

At school, "Richard was smiling and shaking his head. It flashed through my mind: How are you supposed to act at school the day after your father is executed by a firing squad?"

Although The House at Sugar Beach is about revolution and counterrevolution, about prosperity and loss and the will of the narrator to rebuild her life, there's an interesting undercurrent of sibling rivalry.

Leaving the country, Helene tries to comfort her mother by touching her arm, "but I didn't know how. Marlene unbuckled her seat belt, climbed into Mommee's lap, and hugged her. They rocked back and forth, for what seemed like hours. Looking at them, I felt a hole in my stomach that would never fill back up."

The rest of this riveting account is taken up with the struggles of the Coopers in the States, where the adults go from ruling class to crappy jobs and tiny apartments, and teenage Helene struggles to assimilate and makes her way to college, into the newspaper business, on to the top. A longtime correspondent for the Wall Street Journal before she moved on to the New York Times, Cooper sought assignments in risky places, perhaps in search of answers to questions about her own life.

Contemporary snapshots of the Coopers at the head of most chapters give the reader a strong sense of the prosperous days and the hard times, recording the happy smiles of people who have no idea what's in store for them.

Naturally Cooper's travels bring her back to Liberia, where she will go looking for Eunice, the "sister" she left behind. Readers will find themselves turning the pages faster and faster.

Carefully researched and rich in detail, intelligent and strongly felt, this is a wonderful book.

Kit Reed's most recent novel is "The Baby Merchant." Her next, "Enclave," will be out in February.

The House at Sugar Beach

By Helene Cooper

Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $26

Review: New York Times writer Helene Cooper talks of war, privilege in 'Sugar Beach' memoir 09/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:39pm]
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