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The New York Times called Cooper's memoir "mesmerizing in its portrait of a Liberia rarely witnessed." Most readers, if they think of Liberia at all, have a vision of a child soldier wielding a gun in the service of Charles Taylor and his murderous regime. But Cooper's account is of a happy, vibrant childhood, only later followed by the horror of a war.
On the west coast of Africa, Liberia was founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves, sent across the ocean to their own land of opportunity. A descendant of Liberia's most prominent settlers, Cooper and her family are privileged "Congo people" who, like many others, take in a child of the "Country people" -- less privileged native Liberians -- as a companion for Cooper and her younger sister.
Cooper's narrative rings with the sounds of her country's melodic dialect, introducing eccentric relatives, describing family outings and schoolgirl dramas. But disaster strikes in the form of a coup, bringing a violent encounter to their oasis at Sugar Beach, and the Coopers -- forced to leave Eunice behind -- flee the country, landing in the American South. Years later, Cooper finds her footing and a calling as a foreign correspondent, yet something is missing in her life: Eunice, and a better understanding of her own history. Decades later, she returns to Liberia, to begin the hunt for both.
(Holiday 2008 Selection)
At its heart, The House at Sugar Beach is a coming-of-age story told with unremitting honesty. With her pedigree and her freedom from internalized racism, Cooper is liberated to enjoy a social universe that is a fluid mix of all things American and African…While Cooper's memoir is mesmerizing in its portrayal of a Liberia rarely witnessed, its description of the psychological devastationand coping mechanismsbrought on by profound loss is equally captivating.
The New York Times
The House at Sugar Beach is her dramatic memoir of Liberia in the years preceding and after its savage revolution in 1980…a brilliant spotlight on a land too long forgotten. Through Cooper, we breathe Liberia's coal smoke and fish-tangy air; we taste its luscious palm butter on rice and hear the charming patter of Liberian English. We trot to church, to the family plantation and to Grandma's house.
The Washington Post
This stunning memoir by journalist Helene Cooper relates her early years living at the Sugar Beach estate in Liberia until a coup d'état drove her mother, sister and her to America, where they attempted to fit in. The story is a sprawling, epic tale of struggle and survival in the face of adversity, and Cooper relates it with a genuine and emotional voice. As Cooper's tale unfolds, her intimate reading draws listeners into the family as their journey begins. Cooper may not read with a lot of frills and thrills in her somber voice, but the experience is affecting and indelible. A Simon & Schuster hardcover (Reviews, Mar. 10). (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"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."
Cooper, a New York Timesdiplomatic correspondent, writes of her life as a privileged Liberian ultimately forced to emigrate to the United States. Sometimes humorous, at other times shocking, she is always engaging and informative although not highly reflective. Cooper describes her comfortable life in an elite Liberian family, introducing her relatives, the family servants, and Liberian language, culture, and society. In 1980, when she was a teenager, Samuel Kanyon Doe's coup d'état ended it all. The horrors of those times-the televised executions (whose victims included friends and relatives), the rapes (of her mother and schoolmates), and the recruitment of children as soldiers-are all clearly rendered. The most compelling chapters in Cooper's memoir, which goes up to her revisiting Liberia in 2003, profile a Liberian named Eunice whose tribe was living in the country when Cooper's American ancestors arrived. Her parents took in Eunice as a companion for Helene, and they became lifelong friends. Eunice's life swung from poverty to wealth (with the Coopers) and back to poverty (when the Coopers moved to America); why she did not go with them is not clear. A great book discussion selection; recommended for academic and public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ1/08.]
A contemplative memoir of a privileged life in a poor place. The house of the title stood, and perhaps still stands, 11 miles from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Born there in 1966, New York Times special correspondent Cooper (whose beat is now Condoleezza Rice) had the run of that "perfect and perfectly grand paradise," with its five bedrooms and three bathrooms and baby grand piano, all "protected from the ravages of West African squalor and poverty by central air-conditioning, strategically placed coconut trees, and a private water well." Yet, though perched on a hill above the rest, the house was no fortress. As Cooper writes, it was a magnet for rogues-burglars, that is, as distinct from thieves, who "worked for the government and stole money from the public treasury." Lighter-skinned than many of her compatriots, Cooper was also an "Honorable," one of the ethnic and social elite who lorded it over the poorer "Country" people of Liberia. A Country man with a Harvard doctorate, notes the author, would still rank below an Honorable "with a two-bit degree from some community college in Memphis, Tennessee." In childhood games, it was the Honorables who got to shoot the Country people, and the Country people who got to play dead. Such are the perfect ingredients for a civil war, and civil war is what came. When it did, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe, members of Cooper's family were killed, her mother raped, an adopted sister lost, her family scattered and sent into exile in America. These terrible events occur at the book's midpoint. What remains-rendered with aching nostalgia and wonderful language ("Wartime come, when they be evacuating people, you will be glad I not tryinto get on no helicopter in heels")-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.
"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