- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

IN SEARCH OF A LOST AFRICAN CHILDHOOD

By Helene Cooper

Simon & Schuster, $25, 368 pages

REVIEWED BY GREG HOULE

Helene Cooper was one of the lucky few. Being directly descended from Liberia’s founding generation — a group of freed slaves from America who emigrated to this small West African nation in the 1820s — she was a card-carrying member of the nation’s ruling elite. Ms. Cooper grew up in a sprawling, 1970s-chic beach house, complete with ocean breezes and air conditioning, outside of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. As a child, she enjoyed the comforts and privileges of her status, living the sort of life any middle or upper-middle class American family could easily recognize.

Yet, as Ms. Cooper explains in this beautifully written and deeply honest memoir, “Liberia was like a pot of water put on a stove at a slow boil and forgotten about.” The country’s tiny elite population had held sway over Liberian affairs for generations and the large population of native Liberians (or “Country People” as they were known by the elite) was growing increasingly restless about their second-class status. Helene Cooper’s idyllic and privileged childhood was about to be washed out to sea.

In 1980, when Ms. Cooper was 14, Samuel Doe, a 28-year-old army sergeant and native Liberian, overthrew President William Tolbert in a military coup that helped facilitate a decades-long torturous decline for Liberia. Dictatorial rule and a brutal civil war in the years that followed have effectively destroyed Liberia’s infrastructure and economy. After some harrowing brushes with a vengeful military following the coup — including a horrifying and heroic moment when Ms. Cooper’s mother endured a brutal rape by soldiers in order to protect her children who were hiding in a different room — most of the Cooper family was able to flee to the United States. In a single trans-Atlantic flight they were transformed from rich Liberian elite to poor African refugees.

But Ms. Cooper thrived in the United States nonetheless. She studied journalism in college and began a career as a newspaper reporter, working for the Wall Street Journal and now for the New York Times. Ms. Cooper was able to successfully compartmentalize her feelings and shut out her former life in Liberia, despite the tragedy that continued to unfold in her native land. She immersed herself in her adopted land and became a United States citizen. While Liberia spiraled downward in the 1990s — and other reporters were writing stories about it — Ms. Cooper contentedly covered other beats for her newspaper and lived the American dream.

But in 2003, everything changed. While Ms. Cooper was embedded with a U.S. military unit preparing to cover the invasion of Iraq, Liberia’s most ruthless dictator to date, Charles Taylor, was about to be ousted in yet another coup. And when Ms. Cooper was badly injured in an accident as her unit rolled across the Iraqi border, her thoughts immediately turned to Africa and her desire to continue fleeing her Liberian past abruptly dried up in the desert sand.

Soon after the accident, and after more than two decades away from Liberia, Ms. Cooper made a cathartic return to her ravaged homeland. She was startled not only to see how far Liberia had fallen but also how resilient its people were. Ms. Cooper was deeply moved by the number of Liberians who still remembered her, despite having spent so much time away, and she had an emotional, if sometimes awkward, reunion with her long-lost adopted sister Eunice who was forced to stay in Liberia after the Cooper family had left.

Helene Cooper has written a personal story that is not only seamlessly juxtaposed with the tragedy of recent Liberian history, but also with the universal themes of class, race and coming-of-age. “The House at Sugar Beach” is unique in that it tells a story that is both deeply personal yet easily relatable and the book’s greatest strengths are Ms. Cooper’s unwavering honesty, objectivity and complete lack of self-pity. All of which help to make this memoir a riveting and emotional triumph.

  • Greg Houle is a freelance writer and founder of www. africanupdate.com
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