Friday, October 30, 2009

Childhood Memories

You may know Helene Cooper's name from her byline as a diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times. You may even have seen her on TV news shows like Washington Week. But her memoir The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood tells the story of a childhood far removed from that of a typical American girl.

Cooper was born and raised in Liberia, directly descended on both sides from freed American slaves who immigrated from the United States in the pre-Civil War 1820's to establish a free colony in Africa. As a “Congo”, as the descendants of freed slaves were called, she lived a privileged childhood in a large house outside Monrovia, while the native Liberians, called “Country”, struggled in poverty and worked as servants for the upper class “Congos” like the Coopers.

Her parents adopted a native Liberian named Eunice as a companion for the lonely Helene, and the two lived a childhood that would be familiar to any American girl, with music, clothes, cars, and boys as their primary interests.But in 1989, when Helene was fourteen, native soldiers led by Samuel Doe overthrew the government, killing President Tolbert and executing scores of government members, including Helene's uncle. After a terrifying encounter with the native soldiers who invade their Sugar Beach home, the Coopers fled to America, leaving Eunice behind.

Cooper describes her struggles to fit in as an American student, her determination to become a journalist, including a first job in Rhode Island covering school board and city council meetings for the the Providence Journal , and ultimately a plum assignment to cover the Iraq invasion for the Wall Street Journal. A near-death experience there makes her realize that the war she should be covering was in Liberia, and she returns to her native country, which has been devastated by years of savage warfare.

The book is more than just chronology of Helene's life. It is a warm and tender tribute to the strength of her family, especially her warm and loving father and her indomitable mother. When she returns to Liberian to find her lost adopted sister Eunice, she powerfully reconnects to her childhood and to her native country. This book tells a very personal story, but it is also an amazing window on the Liberia behind the headlines.

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