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The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood

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Helene Cooper is “Congo,” a descendant of two Liberian dynasties—traced back to the first ship of freemen that set sail from New York in 1820 to found Monrovia. Helene grew up at Sugar Beach, a twenty-two-room mansion by the sea. Her childhood was filled with servants, flashy cars, a villa in Spain, and a farmhouse up-country. It was also an African childhood, filled with Helene Cooper is “Congo,” a descendant of two Liberian dynasties—traced back to the first ship of freemen that set sail from New York in 1820 to found Monrovia. Helene grew up at Sugar Beach, a twenty-two-room mansion by the sea. Her childhood was filled with servants, flashy cars, a villa in Spain, and a farmhouse up-country. It was also an African childhood, filled with knock foot games and hot pepper soup, heartmen and neegee. When Helene was eight, the Coopers took in a foster child—a common custom among the Liberian elite. Eunice, a Bassa girl, suddenly became known as “Mrs. Cooper’s daughter.” For years the Cooper daughters—Helene, her sister Marlene, and Eunice—blissfully enjoyed the trappings of wealth and advantage. But Liberia was like an unwatched pot of water left boiling on the stove. And on April 12, 1980, a group of soldiers staged a coup d'État, assassinating President William Tolbert and executing his cabinet. The Coopers and the entire Congo class were now the hunted, being imprisoned, shot, tortured, and raped. After a brutal daylight attack by a ragtag crew of soldiers, Helene, Marlene, and their mother fled Sugar Beach, and then Liberia, for America. They left Eunice behind.A world away, Helene tried to assimilate as an American teenager. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill she found her passion in journalism, eventually becoming a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She reported from every part of the globe—except Africa—as Liberia descended into war-torn, third-world hell.In 2003, a near-death experience in Iraq convinced Helene that Liberia—and Eunice—could wait no longer. At once a deeply personal memoir and an examination of a violent and stratified country, The House at Sugar Beach tells of tragedy, forgiveness, and transcendence with unflinching honesty and a survivor's gentle humor. And at its heart, it is a story of Helene Cooper’s long voyage home.


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Helene Cooper is “Congo,” a descendant of two Liberian dynasties—traced back to the first ship of freemen that set sail from New York in 1820 to found Monrovia. Helene grew up at Sugar Beach, a twenty-two-room mansion by the sea. Her childhood was filled with servants, flashy cars, a villa in Spain, and a farmhouse up-country. It was also an African childhood, filled with Helene Cooper is “Congo,” a descendant of two Liberian dynasties—traced back to the first ship of freemen that set sail from New York in 1820 to found Monrovia. Helene grew up at Sugar Beach, a twenty-two-room mansion by the sea. Her childhood was filled with servants, flashy cars, a villa in Spain, and a farmhouse up-country. It was also an African childhood, filled with knock foot games and hot pepper soup, heartmen and neegee. When Helene was eight, the Coopers took in a foster child—a common custom among the Liberian elite. Eunice, a Bassa girl, suddenly became known as “Mrs. Cooper’s daughter.” For years the Cooper daughters—Helene, her sister Marlene, and Eunice—blissfully enjoyed the trappings of wealth and advantage. But Liberia was like an unwatched pot of water left boiling on the stove. And on April 12, 1980, a group of soldiers staged a coup d'État, assassinating President William Tolbert and executing his cabinet. The Coopers and the entire Congo class were now the hunted, being imprisoned, shot, tortured, and raped. After a brutal daylight attack by a ragtag crew of soldiers, Helene, Marlene, and their mother fled Sugar Beach, and then Liberia, for America. They left Eunice behind.A world away, Helene tried to assimilate as an American teenager. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill she found her passion in journalism, eventually becoming a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She reported from every part of the globe—except Africa—as Liberia descended into war-torn, third-world hell.In 2003, a near-death experience in Iraq convinced Helene that Liberia—and Eunice—could wait no longer. At once a deeply personal memoir and an examination of a violent and stratified country, The House at Sugar Beach tells of tragedy, forgiveness, and transcendence with unflinching honesty and a survivor's gentle humor. And at its heart, it is a story of Helene Cooper’s long voyage home.

30 review for The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood

  1. 4 out of 5

    Dorie - Traveling Sister :)

    Wow this woman has quite a story to tell. Raised in the elite class in Liberia with many servants and all the pleasures that money will bring, she will later live through a coup that kills many of her relatives and her parents friends in high government jobs. This forces her, her mother and sister, to flee the country. Later in the story she tells of her career as an international journalist for the Wall Street Journal and her experiences in many foreign countries, including Iraq. A great memoir w Wow this woman has quite a story to tell. Raised in the elite class in Liberia with many servants and all the pleasures that money will bring, she will later live through a coup that kills many of her relatives and her parents friends in high government jobs. This forces her, her mother and sister, to flee the country. Later in the story she tells of her career as an international journalist for the Wall Street Journal and her experiences in many foreign countries, including Iraq. A great memoir with not an inkling of self pity but rather joy at having experienced so much. I would highly recommend this book, it is also very informational about Liberia.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Nathaniel

    This book is soft, tentative and predictable. It is 85% Helene Cooper and 15% Liberia. Though Cooper is a reputable journalist, this is her memoir; it lingers on her girlish crushes, her favorite dresses and the troubled marriage of her aristocratic parents. The second part is an unexceptional account of Cooper's semi-assimilation into American culture, starting midway through her high school years and tracing her deliberate mission to become an influential foreign correspondent. Throughout this This book is soft, tentative and predictable. It is 85% Helene Cooper and 15% Liberia. Though Cooper is a reputable journalist, this is her memoir; it lingers on her girlish crushes, her favorite dresses and the troubled marriage of her aristocratic parents. The second part is an unexceptional account of Cooper's semi-assimilation into American culture, starting midway through her high school years and tracing her deliberate mission to become an influential foreign correspondent. Throughout this book, her training as a journalist shows; everything is seen from a distance and presented with efficiency in a context made historical with a few statistics and anecdotes. Owing to Cooper's immensely privileged upbringing and her early departure form Liberia, it seems that she didn't have that much raw material to work with when trying to conjure up the realities of her motherland. Her note at the end makes it sound like she would not have shared one single sensory impression of the country if her supportive family and friends hadn't peppered the narrative with their own remembrances. Ultimately, Helene is too humorless, earnest and insecure for my tastes and while she was,in one sense, the ultimate insider, she was also extremely far removed from the pulse of her country. She rightly faults herself for "papering over seismic moment(s) in (her) life by focusing on the superficial." That tendency shows throughout the narrative. It would have been much stronger if Cooper had brought other voices into her story, if she had inhabited the perspective of anyone else in her age group or generation in order to introduce her readers to a more complex portrait of her country. Her perspective is tiring. I expected her to fill the niche of "Liberian Memoirist" and she didn't. This is an adequate autobiography with a bit of hand-wringing about how the author didn't become as aware of Liberia as she could have and didn't invest as much of herself in bettering her country as she could have. If you still read this book, know that you will be presented with a number of executions and rapes that may prove disturbing. Cooper treats them in the lightest and most sanitized way; but the reader does not escape them entirely.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Celia

    Helene Cooper has written a compelling memoir about her childhood in Liberia, the revolution of 1980, and her subsequent life in the US. 1973. Helene is 7 years old. Her life is more than blessed. The House at Sugar Beach is a mansion. She has parents she loves and a sister she (okay) only tolerates. Her family takes in Eunice, a child from a poor family, and Eunice becomes the sister she loves. Helene's parents are John Lewis Cooper Jr and Calista Esmerelda Dennis Cooper. Together they represente Helene Cooper has written a compelling memoir about her childhood in Liberia, the revolution of 1980, and her subsequent life in the US. 1973. Helene is 7 years old. Her life is more than blessed. The House at Sugar Beach is a mansion. She has parents she loves and a sister she (okay) only tolerates. Her family takes in Eunice, a child from a poor family, and Eunice becomes the sister she loves. Helene's parents are John Lewis Cooper Jr and Calista Esmerelda Dennis Cooper. Together they represented three Liberian dynasties: The Coopers, the Dennises and the Johnsons. Her fathers's ancestors dated back to one of the first ships of freed blacks that immigrated to Liberia from America in the early 1800's. Mommee's ancestor was on the FIRST ship. If Elijah Johnson had not existed, Liberia might not exist. 1980. Native Liberian soldiers, under the leadership of Master Sgt. Kanyon Doe, stormed the Executive Mansion and killed the then President, Tolbert. Up to that time, the original Liberian people, the poor people, were referred to as the Country People. Those in power and rich, with ancestors coming from America, were the Congo People. With Doe in power, Helene's entire family was in great danger. Helene, her sister and Mommee were able to escape to America and settled in Knoxville TN. Daddy was already in America. Eunice was left behind. The rest of the story describes how Helene settles in, goes to school, and becomes a journalist. She has not seen Eunice in 20 years and she vows to go back to Liberia to find her. The devastation that has occurred in Liberia is heartbreaking. Eunice has survived, Helene learns, and she goes on a trek to find her. This story was quite good. I especially like the Liberian English that these people spoke. Lyrical. Funny. It was an English that Helene never forgot, even after becoming Americanized. My favorite phrase was "I hold your foot", meaning "Please don't do that". 4 stars

  4. 5 out of 5

    Cassy

    If you enjoyed this book, you should check out My Colombian War by Silvana Paternostro. Their stories are remarkably similar: (a) the narrator is part of the rich, privileged class in a predominantly poor country. (b) Her ancestors are important founders of her country and she lives a charmed childhood up until increasing violence forces her to flee the country in her teens – (c) leaving behind the lower-class girl her parents had semi-adopted to be her friend. (d) She immerses herself in the Am If you enjoyed this book, you should check out My Colombian War by Silvana Paternostro. Their stories are remarkably similar: (a) the narrator is part of the rich, privileged class in a predominantly poor country. (b) Her ancestors are important founders of her country and she lives a charmed childhood up until increasing violence forces her to flee the country in her teens – (c) leaving behind the lower-class girl her parents had semi-adopted to be her friend. (d) She immerses herself in the American culture and largely ignores the deteriorating conditions in her birth country. (e) Once she becomes an journalist covering international stories, she decides to revisit her birth country despite the dangers and rediscovers herself. It is literally the same story – just change the setting to Colombia instead of Liberia. Yet, Cooper’s writing is far easier and more enjoyable to read than Paternostro’s. And despite her lavish up-bringing, she miraculously does not come off as a spoiled brat. I also loved that she expanded her book beyond a self-memoir to include the history of Liberia’s founding, its political upheaval, and loads of fascinating insights in Liberian culture (including various expressions like “oh, white man can lie, oh" and yummy-sounding foods like palm butter). I was intrigued as she clearly traced her ancestors back to the 1800s – something I would love to do for myself someday. Overall, her book is charming, easy to read, and insightful. I certainly feel like I learned something about Liberia – a country that before I could point out on a map but that’s about it. The book's only perceived drawbacks are as follows: (1) Cooper has a tendency to repeat herself a lot. Not major parts, but details such as “my aunt so-and-so was married to so-and-so” and then one chapter later “I visited my aunt so-and-so, who was the wife of so-and-so”. Her cast of characters and other elements were easy enough to follow, and these repetitions were unnecessary. (2) Also, she herself does not play a big role in Liberia’s political scene (although members of her extended family certainly did). So her story is mainly focused on her childhood with her limited perspective of the coup as it happened and then as an adult reflecting back and conducting researching. (3) Moreover, Copper glazed over her career as a globe-trekking journalist. I understand the focus of the book was her reconnection to her birth country. Yet I still would have enjoyed a larger section on her career instead such a superficial treatment. (4) Last, I wrote earlier that her memoir is insightful. Yet she fails to illuminate one big irony: her ancestors, free blacks in slavery-based society, left behind the oppressive U.S. to sail to West Africa only to set up a society where they became the oppressors. To conclude, I was lucky enough to attend a speech by Cooper. She was down-to-earth, self-effacing and answered the audience’s questions about her personal life with candor. However, she is not the most polished speaker and the majority of her speech consisted of her reading passages from this book. She definitely expresses herself better in writing, and that's okay.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Joy D

    The House at Sugar Beach is a combination family memoir, history of Liberia, and gut-wrenching first-hand account of what it was like to live through a coup d’état. Born in Liberia in 1966, Helene Cooper led a life of comfort and privilege as “Congo,” a term for descendants of the repatriated free blacks that arrived in West Africa from the United States in the 1820’s. She lived in a mansion attended by servants and her extended family held positions in the government. Her parents took in a loc The House at Sugar Beach is a combination family memoir, history of Liberia, and gut-wrenching first-hand account of what it was like to live through a coup d’état. Born in Liberia in 1966, Helene Cooper led a life of comfort and privilege as “Congo,” a term for descendants of the repatriated free blacks that arrived in West Africa from the United States in the 1820’s. She lived in a mansion attended by servants and her extended family held positions in the government. Her parents took in a local girl, Eunice, as a companion for their daughters, and she was treated as part of the immediate family. Eunice was a “Country,” as descendants of the indigenous African people were labeled. The rancor between the Congo and Country groups originated in the 1820’s and was inflamed by differences in socioeconomic standing, with a small percentage of the population controlling a large portion of the wealth. Tensions between the two groups erupted into violence in 1980 when a small group led by Samuel Doe staged a coup d'état, killed the President, and executed governmental officials. This memoir is educational and engaging. One of the author’s strengths is her ability to vividly describe the ambiance of Liberia, such as the foods, idioms, customs, and social structure of the time. Liberia’s history is expertly woven into the narrative to provide the context for the coming political disruptions. The author directly relates the horrors experienced by her family members during the coup, evoking feelings of outrage and sympathy. Helene Cooper was a young girl during the early part of the memoir and the language is that of a child, which, while “accurate” in reflecting a child’s tone and perspective, is not particularly analytical and is focused on somewhat frivolous topics. The time she spends in the United States after the coup seems unfocused and meandering. A more adult perspective emerges in the last half of the memoir, when the author returns to Liberia to reconnect with her friends and family, hoping to resolve her guilt and regrets. She relates the latest round of political unrest and the impact on the populace. While a bit uneven, the book is worthwhile to learn more about the country and the people of Liberia.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship

    I loved reading this book. It’s a memoir of the author’s privileged childhood in Liberia, the early days of civil war there and her family’s flight, and her journey of building a life in another country and ultimately coming to terms with her homeland. Helene Cooper is an award-winning journalist, and you can see that clearly in her writing, which is compelling, informative, and relatable. She builds scenes from her childhood in an almost novelistic way, and explores the dynamics of her complica I loved reading this book. It’s a memoir of the author’s privileged childhood in Liberia, the early days of civil war there and her family’s flight, and her journey of building a life in another country and ultimately coming to terms with her homeland. Helene Cooper is an award-winning journalist, and you can see that clearly in her writing, which is compelling, informative, and relatable. She builds scenes from her childhood in an almost novelistic way, and explores the dynamics of her complicated family with depth and honesty. While she was born to a Liberian dynasty (descended from the first free blacks who arrived from the U.S. to build a colony), there’s an ever-present reminder of her privilege in her best friend, a poor native Liberian girl her parents adopt to be her playmate. The divergence between the lives of these two as they grow older tells you a lot about Liberia (and the world). Cooper is also able to tell a personal, gripping story about the war, in which her family does not escape violence. And she includes a few helpful chapters detailing her family history and the early history of Liberia. While the portion of the book dealing with her life outside Liberia is much shorter, it’s still an interesting look at the family members’ relative assimilation and race relations in the U.S. But it isn’t all heavy stuff. There’s quite a bit of humor and fun in the book, especially as the author remembers her childhood and teenage years. She also seems enthusiastic about explaining Liberian culture and Liberian English to those unfamiliar with it, adding a lot of flavor to the story. In fact, perhaps neither of my two reservations about the book is fairly attributed to the author. One is that it has more than its share of copyediting mistakes. The other is that, despite the history included, I never understood how the relatively peaceful country in which Cooper grew up spawned one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars, with all the atrocities she describes. I’m sure that to the teenaged Helene Cooper this made just as little sense; but as a veteran foreign correspondent who rode along for the invasion of Iraq, she probably has some insight into what makes wars different from one another. I would have appreciated the level of research about the war that she clearly put into the colony’s early years, though as a memoir the book succeeds regardless. Overall, this is a very well-told story featuring distinct, complicated personalities, from a self-aware and thoughtful writer with fascinating life experiences. It’s also a great way to learn about a corner of the world that most people know little about. I would definitely recommend this one.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Demetria

    If you are interested in learning a thing or two about Liberia, definitely pick up this book. Helene Cooper does a wonderful job of telling her family's very interesting story while putting everything into a historical context. I learned a lot more about Liberia by reading this book and it has inspired me to learn more.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Elie

    I'd like to excuse Cooper's failure to grapple meaningfully with the themes that should be all over a book about a girl growing up in pre-war Liberia as a character weakness, which is how she presents it, but I can't. To constantly focus on the superficial as a defense mechanism against disparity and atrocity makes for a poor memoir. The "Acknowledgments" section is full of thanks to people who encouraged her to delve deeper and talk about the big picture - I can only imagine what a disaster an I'd like to excuse Cooper's failure to grapple meaningfully with the themes that should be all over a book about a girl growing up in pre-war Liberia as a character weakness, which is how she presents it, but I can't. To constantly focus on the superficial as a defense mechanism against disparity and atrocity makes for a poor memoir. The "Acknowledgments" section is full of thanks to people who encouraged her to delve deeper and talk about the big picture - I can only imagine what a disaster an earlier draft of this well-written but ultimately vacuous book would be.

  9. 4 out of 5

    J.I.

    Liberia, if you didn't know, and I sure didn't, was founded by free slaves in the 1800's. Like most civilizations, they immediately divided the country into a caste system, the cultivated American born and the native, "country" people. According to history, this eventually resulted in a coup, no real surprise. This memoir is written by one of the little girls that grew up in the upper class of this society until she was a teen. Her family had more or less adopted a "country" girl, and they became Liberia, if you didn't know, and I sure didn't, was founded by free slaves in the 1800's. Like most civilizations, they immediately divided the country into a caste system, the cultivated American born and the native, "country" people. According to history, this eventually resulted in a coup, no real surprise. This memoir is written by one of the little girls that grew up in the upper class of this society until she was a teen. Her family had more or less adopted a "country" girl, and they became like family. Only the Coopers moved when the civil war happened and left their adopted daughter behind. Lives were lived and Helene, the former rich girl in a poor country, decided it was time to go back. The book is expertly written, utilizing the reporting of facts with a conversational style that spares no feelings, especially on her own part. It illuminates Liberian culture and touches upon its history and speaks of the tragedy that befell it. It is a story about growing up and accepting who you are. It is also a book I would recommend to all.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Margitte

    I am going to respectfully give this book a miss for now. I started reading the book and just could not connect to it. Not the right moment to read it. The violence and journalistic approach to the story is getting me down. Will try again later.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Angela

    I nabbed this book from my husband's to-read pile one afternoon, thinking I'd read a few pages. I had a hard time putting it down and had to claim it as my own for a few days. Ms. Cooper's memoir is gentle and wry, which is probably pretty difficult to do when you are writing about one of the most volatile areas in recent memory. I liked it best when she wrote about her family and her own experience, but the "history lessons" she inserted were relevant, and certainly necessary for a reader (like I nabbed this book from my husband's to-read pile one afternoon, thinking I'd read a few pages. I had a hard time putting it down and had to claim it as my own for a few days. Ms. Cooper's memoir is gentle and wry, which is probably pretty difficult to do when you are writing about one of the most volatile areas in recent memory. I liked it best when she wrote about her family and her own experience, but the "history lessons" she inserted were relevant, and certainly necessary for a reader (like me) who didn't already know the horrible details of recent events in Liberia. (And it's just me calling them "history lessons" - Cooper does a nice job of weaving important details in with her family story, as her family were important figures in the founding and governing of Liberia). I highly recommend this book - I think it will appeal to current event buffs and folks who like personal memoirs and books about family relations.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Marilyn

    Helene Cooper's compelling memoir of her childhood in Liberia and immigration to the US following the coup in 1980 is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it a number of years ago, and still remember it vividly. I listened to the audiobook version.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

    4.5 stars, rounding up to 5. Sometimes books make you confront uncomfortable truths about yourself, such as how impossibly narrow your world view might be. I’m ashamed to admit I knew little of Liberia and its history other than “Scary place…I think you get murdered there?” I had no idea it began with freed slaves from America, that it was contemplated as an American colony. No clue. The author is a well-respected journalist who grew up in Liberia’s upper class, her origins a self-described “one 4.5 stars, rounding up to 5. Sometimes books make you confront uncomfortable truths about yourself, such as how impossibly narrow your world view might be. I’m ashamed to admit I knew little of Liberia and its history other than “Scary place…I think you get murdered there?” I had no idea it began with freed slaves from America, that it was contemplated as an American colony. No clue. The author is a well-respected journalist who grew up in Liberia’s upper class, her origins a self-described “one-in-a-million lottery ticket: birth into what passed for the landed gentry upper class of Africa’s first independent country.” They chose to be free in Africa versus America: “None of that American post-civil war/civil rights movement baggage to bog me down with any inferiority complex… Who needs to struggle for equality? Let everybody else try to be equal to me.” After a (mostly) charmed childhood, a coup is staged in the country and Cooper’s innocent existence is shattered, to put it mildly. We follow her escape from the country and eventual return. One brilliant, heartbreaking, touching part was that as this was all going on in the early days, as important people, her family, their friends, were being executed, she was, as a thirteen year old girl, worried about what this meant for her budding crush on a local boy. Some reviewers point to this as criticism but it was so honest and true. Someone her age would have no concept of the bigger picture. And of course whatever horror she is facing she’s going to try to ignore by focusing on the trivial, clinging to that old part of her life. Loved that – felt so true. I almost rated this four stars because the writing is very straightforward. The author is a journalist and it shows. The prose is not beautiful but then I decided that is not at all the point. I don’t even like flowery, overdone writing! And it is the exact right tone for this book. The House at Sugar Beach will have me googling late into the night, and thinking of it for months to come. A truly affecting memoir.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Glen

    It has been my privilege and pleasure to know many Liberians who have moved to the Spokane area in the past several years. Some are among my dearest friends. I knew quite a bit, I thought, about the dreadful civil war that fragmented their country and sent so many into exile and still many others to their graves from conversations and participating in gatherings with them. Books like Russell Banks' novel "The Darling" filled in some blanks, and my own research filled in still others, but Helene It has been my privilege and pleasure to know many Liberians who have moved to the Spokane area in the past several years. Some are among my dearest friends. I knew quite a bit, I thought, about the dreadful civil war that fragmented their country and sent so many into exile and still many others to their graves from conversations and participating in gatherings with them. Books like Russell Banks' novel "The Darling" filled in some blanks, and my own research filled in still others, but Helene Cooper's book, written from a first-person perspective by a proud Liberian survivor, filled in the most. She is unsparing in her criticism of the "Congo People", of which she is one, the descendants of free black Americans who returned to colonize Africa in the early 19th century, and the resentment they provoked amongst the "country people", the aboriginal inhabitants of that same land. Most Liberians I have come to know are from the latter group, but it was not from them that I learned the most about the injustices that fueled the coup led by Samuel Doe and the subsequent atrocities that continued unabated for about the next 20 years and sent the country spinning into utter murderous madness, claiming over 250,000 lives. Cooper tells that story and many others, all parts of her story, with the skill, detail, and patience of a veteran journalist, which she is, but also with the moving grace of one humbled, but not bowed, by the horror she has lived through. Her love for her mother, adopted sister Eunice, other relatives and friends, her country of origin and its food and manners, all of this speaks through this book with clarity and resonance. The pacing is at times a little uneven, and not every alley of memory she turns down yields good rewards for the reader, but in sum this is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in this version of what it means to be African-American.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    Helene Cooper lived an idyllic life in Sugar Beach, Liberia a proud descendant of Liberia's founding fathers. The trouble begins when Helene's parents divorce, and shortly after a coup takes place upsetting all semblance of order for the wealthier segment of society to which Helene's family belongs. The book details the fight for power between the Country folk and the Congos and the resulting pain and persecution by the winning faction, Helene's family's resulting journey to the U.S. and her dis Helene Cooper lived an idyllic life in Sugar Beach, Liberia a proud descendant of Liberia's founding fathers. The trouble begins when Helene's parents divorce, and shortly after a coup takes place upsetting all semblance of order for the wealthier segment of society to which Helene's family belongs. The book details the fight for power between the Country folk and the Congos and the resulting pain and persecution by the winning faction, Helene's family's resulting journey to the U.S. and her discovery of a love for journalism. As far as memoirs go, in spite of the atrocities of war, it is milder than say, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier or Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. This book has a nice balance between pleasant memories and painful ones. One other bonus, the audio version I listened to was narrated by the author. I found this to be a real treat because she is still able to talk "Liberian English" after decades of living in the U.S.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Melissa Andrews

    I enjoyed this book. I never paid much attention to the various struggles going on in Liberia and this provided a graphic picture. It also gave unique insight into the creation of Liberia as an American "colony". The book touches many issues that could generate interesting discussions: * Why would blacks who knew first-hand the problems with slavery and class institute those same structures in their new country? * Why do people think they should go into other people's countries/lands and take them I enjoyed this book. I never paid much attention to the various struggles going on in Liberia and this provided a graphic picture. It also gave unique insight into the creation of Liberia as an American "colony". The book touches many issues that could generate interesting discussions: * Why would blacks who knew first-hand the problems with slavery and class institute those same structures in their new country? * Why do people think they should go into other people's countries/lands and take them over? What gives them the right? * Why did Africans sell each other into slavery? * Why do many African "liberations" lead to worse opportunities for the local people? * What causes the crazed behavior that takes place during war? * How could people survive for 13/15 years in a war-torn environment and still maintain their dignity? * Why do people in 'privileged' situations not realize how the things they do are offensive to those of 'lower' classes? I have an infant son and I cannot imagine anyone taking him away from me to make him into a child soldier. But I can definitely imagine fighting anyone or enduring anything to protect him. I read reviews of this book that faulted Ms. Cooper for not focusing enough on the "issues" - I don't think her point was to address any of these issues or provide solutions. It's a memoir - she chose not to analyze or rationalize; she just told her story, honestly, and I appreciated that.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Kennedy

    Helene Cooper's memoir of growing up in Liberia is one of those books that you just can't put down. Because I grew up in the U.S. at the same time as the author, I was captivated by the stories of her girlhood. Nancy Drew, green eye shadow, Barry White, velvet upholstery... even singing Blessed Assurance endlessly in church. It all sounds so familiar, and yet, that's where the similarity ends. Guns and war, soldiers and strongmen, rapes and executions. We who grew up in the relative safety of th Helene Cooper's memoir of growing up in Liberia is one of those books that you just can't put down. Because I grew up in the U.S. at the same time as the author, I was captivated by the stories of her girlhood. Nancy Drew, green eye shadow, Barry White, velvet upholstery... even singing Blessed Assurance endlessly in church. It all sounds so familiar, and yet, that's where the similarity ends. Guns and war, soldiers and strongmen, rapes and executions. We who grew up in the relative safety of the U.S. in the latter part of the twentieth century can barely form mental images of the scenes she describes. Professional reviews of this book say its tone is flat. I don't agree. I like the factual, unsentimental tone of the book. The author is reporting her life, in all its glory and its ugliness. If she maintains a certain reserve, or a little distance, for her sanity's sake, she sure has the right. God bless her just for surviving. I suggest you read this book along with Lawrence Hill's Someone Knows My Name: A Novel, which is based on historical events and tells the story of a woman who was enslaved in the South but who returns with the colony of African-Americans who founded Sierra Leone after the Revolutionary War. It provides another colorful look at this part of the world.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kristy Cabrera

    Wow. In spite of a slow start, this was a beautifully written and poignant memoir. I not only felt like I experienced an important history lesson in learning about Cooper's rich family tree and the founding of Liberia, but I also felt like I came to understand more deeply the way in which history constantly demands that women carry profound emotional burdens. Cooper, who grows up as a happy Congo person in Liberia, has to flee the country with her mom and her sister after a major coup turns the c Wow. In spite of a slow start, this was a beautifully written and poignant memoir. I not only felt like I experienced an important history lesson in learning about Cooper's rich family tree and the founding of Liberia, but I also felt like I came to understand more deeply the way in which history constantly demands that women carry profound emotional burdens. Cooper, who grows up as a happy Congo person in Liberia, has to flee the country with her mom and her sister after a major coup turns the country into destructive chaos. She adjusts to life in the U.S. and experiences the true American dream, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen and fulfilling her aspirations to become a journalist. When she does finally return to Liberia to re-connect with her foster sister Eunice, their reunion is so tender, and her renewed connection to her first home rings true. Cooper's memoir is painfully honest when it needs to be, reflective as she grows older, and even instructive in its coverage of Liberia's development and self-destruction. Throughout the novel Cooper made me laugh, cry, and reflect on my own childhood and family. I realized again how much everyone's families are the same in their deep and complicated ways of loving each other as well as their experience of life's joys and cruelties. One of the best books I have read this year.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Julie Christine

    What a tremendous memoir. It is vivid, full of life and passion, taking the tragedy that is Liberia and wrapping it in memories of a childhood graced with laughter and love. Cooper tells her unique history, as a child of privilege and opportunity living in a family compound outside Monrovia, Liberia in the 1970s. She is forced to flee with her mother and youngest sister in 1980, after Samuel Doe and his rebel soldiers staged a coup d'etat and assassinated President Tolbert; she would not return What a tremendous memoir. It is vivid, full of life and passion, taking the tragedy that is Liberia and wrapping it in memories of a childhood graced with laughter and love. Cooper tells her unique history, as a child of privilege and opportunity living in a family compound outside Monrovia, Liberia in the 1970s. She is forced to flee with her mother and youngest sister in 1980, after Samuel Doe and his rebel soldiers staged a coup d'etat and assassinated President Tolbert; she would not return for twenty-three years. In the intervening two decades she would become an American citizen and a celebrated journalist and would experience devastating losses and joyful reunions, even as Liberia deteriorated into epic chaos. Cooper's voice is one of such joy and love- she is never detached from her story, yet never sentimental. The research is evident, in the care she takes to present the historical timeline of Liberia's founding as a nation and its recent history, yet her own family's story is so entwined with Liberia's that even the recitation of facts is deeply personal.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Pamela

    Reading this little gem, divided into bite-sized chapters of varying topic and portent, was akin to chatting with Ms. Cooper over afternoon tea. Quite enjoyable; though not always the topics. Riots and war are nothing to chuckle over. Rather, Cooper's candid openness about her childhood was the joyous element. Which often entailed a few humorous antics or spoiled-brat self-incriminations. Prior to reading The House on Sugar Beach, I knew very little about either the author or Liberia and its Ame Reading this little gem, divided into bite-sized chapters of varying topic and portent, was akin to chatting with Ms. Cooper over afternoon tea. Quite enjoyable; though not always the topics. Riots and war are nothing to chuckle over. Rather, Cooper's candid openness about her childhood was the joyous element. Which often entailed a few humorous antics or spoiled-brat self-incriminations. Prior to reading The House on Sugar Beach, I knew very little about either the author or Liberia and its American colonization thereof. I'm delighted to have an elementary knowledge of both, now. A solid three-star read.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Karlan

    This extraordinary memoir deserves all the rave reviews it has received. The author skillfully combines stories about her own life with the history of Liberia. The destruction of the country during the fighting seems inevitable as she describes the problems which existed there from the early 19th C. on. Don't miss this one.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Stefanie

    I was quite excited to read "The House at Sugar Beach" about Helene Cooper's childhood in Liberia and eventual life as a refugee in America, after reading her short account of it in the New York Times. But I was to be sorely disappointed and came away with a solid dislike of the author's younger self. I've finished books of a similar length in two days, but it took me months to read this one as it was incredibly boring. This memoir is in essence the story of a rich girl's boring everyday life (a I was quite excited to read "The House at Sugar Beach" about Helene Cooper's childhood in Liberia and eventual life as a refugee in America, after reading her short account of it in the New York Times. But I was to be sorely disappointed and came away with a solid dislike of the author's younger self. I've finished books of a similar length in two days, but it took me months to read this one as it was incredibly boring. This memoir is in essence the story of a rich girl's boring everyday life (accidently set in Liberia) and seems to mostly revolve around who wore which clothes and drove what car. Incredibly boring and aggravating, especially after the author moves to the US and the story goes on to describe her now even more boring everyday life and education. The book also lacks an overall common narrative thread (she jumps and tracks back much too often in her storytelling) and if you think you are going to learn anything useful about the Liberian war from Sugar Beach, you are wrong too. The few mentions of it are jumbled, disjointed and leave the reader utterly without context, much like the rest of the memoir - even though some of the author's family members were tortured, raped and even executed in this conflict. How and why did this war start? I guess, I'll have to find out about that on Wikipedia. The jumpy style and constant worries about whether this or that clothing item will make her look fat (while other much more interesting things are waved away in an offhand way) played a part in the development of my dislike for the protagonist at some point. But her selfish relationship with her foster sister Eunice, who is used and then discarded, is what sealed it. After not seeming to like her at all in the beginning (just like her real sister), she exploits Eunice for company, treats her with constant braggings, then eventually breaks off contact with her after the family leaves Eunice in Liberia when they flee. Fast forward fifteen years later and Eunice is apparently good to squeeze for just one more act in this self-publicist's story: as an ending note to round off this memoir. I don't want to insiniuate the author is really as narcissistic and selfish as this sounds (she comes off nice in interviews on Youtube), but that's the overwhelming impression I got from Sugar Beach. All in all, I guess this book mainly proves, that an award-winning journalist does not automatically qualify as a good book author. It's essentialy a collection of short newspaper articles, that don't fit together, leave you guessing and make for tear-inducing boredom. Even the exciting or terrifying parts do not make for a good read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about Liberia. Just a vague sense that its recent history had been violent, and the recollection that it was the African country where Lincoln had wanted to relocate the freed slaves after the Civil War. I had no idea that its history was so tied to America — that a group of freed slaves left the coast of the United States in the 1820s and crossed the Atlantic to establish a colony on these West African shores. By the 1970s (when the story in this Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about Liberia. Just a vague sense that its recent history had been violent, and the recollection that it was the African country where Lincoln had wanted to relocate the freed slaves after the Civil War. I had no idea that its history was so tied to America — that a group of freed slaves left the coast of the United States in the 1820s and crossed the Atlantic to establish a colony on these West African shores. By the 1970s (when the story in this book begins), the descendants of these Americans had formed their own lighter skinned upper class, arrogantly distinct from the descendants of the original inhabitants of Liberia. The first half of this memoir could be mistaken for a children’s book. It follows the author as a child, born into a luxurious upper class lifestyle, unaware of the distant rumblings of social unrest around her. When the storm of unrest breaks, however, the story is anything but children’s literature. The horrors of war invade the innocence of Helene’s childhood — executions, rape, and bands of roving soldiers become the background against which she lives. I had the sense while reading this book that writing it was a journey of catharsis for the author — of turning to face a past that she’s hidden from. It’s a fascinating past, full of growth and irony. But I had a vague sense that she was holding something back. I kept thinking of books like A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Last Brother, Half of a Yellow Sun — powerful novels, weighty with emotional depth in their exploration of themes such as war and human suffering. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to compare memoir to fiction. But while I found this book to be an engaging read, I kept waiting for something more. ***** If you appreciated this review, check out my blog at pagesandmargins.wordpress.com

  24. 5 out of 5

    Faith Spinks

    Helene Cooper grew up in Liberia the daughter of two historically important Congo elite families. However her idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end on April 12, 1980 when Liberia's civil war began. As members of the Congo class were being imprisoned, shot, tortured or raped Helene and her family fled to the US but left behind in Liberia their foster daughter Eunice. Helene's memoir recounts the cultural history of Liberia alongside anecdotes from her own childhood, through her relocation to the Helene Cooper grew up in Liberia the daughter of two historically important Congo elite families. However her idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end on April 12, 1980 when Liberia's civil war began. As members of the Congo class were being imprisoned, shot, tortured or raped Helene and her family fled to the US but left behind in Liberia their foster daughter Eunice. Helene's memoir recounts the cultural history of Liberia alongside anecdotes from her own childhood, through her relocation to the USA up to her final return to Liberia twenty years later for her reunion with her foster sister. The book is a touching recount of a life made extraordinary by the events which unfolded around her. The historical and cultural dimensions of the tale were fascinating and yet disturbing. Despite the often harrowing accounts Helene's sense of humour comes through as well and it is a very real glimpse into a family life lived. This book had been recommended to me by someone that I got chatting to whilst relaxing on the beach beside my hotel on the edge of Monrovia and I had made a mental note at the time to find it. I wish now I could go back and tell her that she was right and just what an impact this book had on me. As I was reading it the story was really brought to life for me as I could identify so many of the locations and picture them as they are now; particularly Monrovia including the ELWA compound where all my meetings were held and the Firestone Plantations where we distributed gift boxes among local communities, as these were two of the major Liberian locations featured. I enjoyed the many references to and the comments written in Liberian English - a language which I had struggled to understand throughout my visit. It lent an extra flavour to the story. As I gained an understanding of the reality of the history of Liberia it also gave me a better understanding of the need and struggles which I witnessed during my trip. It gave me a greater appreciation of the Liberian people. Although I particularly enjoyed this book because of my own experiences in Liberia I would still recommend it as a good book. For me the personal experience was just an added bonus.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ann

    I have been fascinated with Liberia since I read Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's autobiography, "This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President." and saw the documentary, “Pray the devil back to hell.” They were stories about how the courageous women of Liberia went on strike to stop the endless wars, a marvelous example of non-violent protest that led to the election of Ellen Sirleaf. We hear about Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and the Civil War protests here in the 196 I have been fascinated with Liberia since I read Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's autobiography, "This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President." and saw the documentary, “Pray the devil back to hell.” They were stories about how the courageous women of Liberia went on strike to stop the endless wars, a marvelous example of non-violent protest that led to the election of Ellen Sirleaf. We hear about Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and the Civil War protests here in the 1960's. But, the protests in Liberia took even greater courage and were only done when the women felt they had no other choice. It was an amazing accomplishment in a country with an illiteracy rate close to 70%. Helene Cooper's book takes a very different look at life in Liberia. She was the great-granddaughter of the founders of Liberia, and had a very privileged upbringing in a poverty stricken country. She lived in a mansion on the beach, wore designer clothes and went to a private school.When she had trouble sleeping, her mother brought in a foster sister to keep her company. When the coup came, she and her family fled to America where she became a journalist for the New York Times. The book ends with her return to Liberia 15 years later and her reunion with the foster sister who had remained and suffered in Liberia. I found this a very interesting book and recommend it.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Vanessa

    Good book overall, but waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much history in the beginning. I found the history very early on in the book to be interesting (especially about how Liberia came to be) but then she gets mired down into way too much detail. I couldn't keep any of the people straight or what their significance was. I finally had to start skipping through all the history parts until I came to dialogue. We read this for book club and only 2 out of 7 people finished the book because they couldn't Good book overall, but waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much history in the beginning. I found the history very early on in the book to be interesting (especially about how Liberia came to be) but then she gets mired down into way too much detail. I couldn't keep any of the people straight or what their significance was. I finally had to start skipping through all the history parts until I came to dialogue. We read this for book club and only 2 out of 7 people finished the book because they couldn't get through all the dry history in the first half. So, IF you can push through the first half of the book, the second half gets very interesting, and I couldn't put it down. The book describes very violent and graphic scenes, however, so if you have trouble reading that sort of thing, it probably isn't for you. I also had people in my book club complain about how the Liberian vernacular was difficult to read, but it didn't bother me too much. I think she could have cut out about 50% of the 1st half of the novel, and it would have been a much better book!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Stacey Peters

    I have always been interested in the Liberian "experiment" and how it started. This book gives an interesting historical background of the founders. After that, I was really disappointed with the memoir aspect of this novel. The author gives a very detailed perspective on her life and her people, less on the indigenous natives of Liberia or "townies". Something was missing, a sort of compassion for the people who could not/ or would not leave. It was written so matter of factly. As a youth, she I have always been interested in the Liberian "experiment" and how it started. This book gives an interesting historical background of the founders. After that, I was really disappointed with the memoir aspect of this novel. The author gives a very detailed perspective on her life and her people, less on the indigenous natives of Liberia or "townies". Something was missing, a sort of compassion for the people who could not/ or would not leave. It was written so matter of factly. As a youth, she didn't care for the House on Sugar Beach, until she was forced to leave that priviledged lifestyle. Chapter after chapter of self promotion, her expensive ACS education and trips to Spain was a bit much. Then she gallantly writes about her mediocre writing because she felt she deserved the plumb assignments. Can you say Self indulged? That whole Iraq chapter really got under my skin. Other than the fact that did escape with her family, her memoir was nothing to write home about.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mikey B.

    This is an autobiography of a girl who grew up among the privileged classes of Liberia. Her family had servants for cooking, doing the dishes… Her entire world vanished abruptly in 1980 when a coup forced them to flee to the U.S. The events around the coup convulse the life of the author. This and the description of her return to Liberia 23 years later to re-visit her native land are the most intriguing and personal parts of the book. The narrative concerned with her years of entitlement in Liber This is an autobiography of a girl who grew up among the privileged classes of Liberia. Her family had servants for cooking, doing the dishes… Her entire world vanished abruptly in 1980 when a coup forced them to flee to the U.S. The events around the coup convulse the life of the author. This and the description of her return to Liberia 23 years later to re-visit her native land are the most intriguing and personal parts of the book. The narrative concerned with her years of entitlement in Liberia and her formative years as a teenager and attendance at college in the U.S. are “normal” biographical subjects. There is always a danger when recounting one’s childhood and adolescence that it becomes sprinkled with mundane events – this book is no exception.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    This tender memoir shows us a side of society that exists in many African countries but is seldom portrayed--the upper middle class. I found it refreshing to read about the lives of Africans of means who aren't embezzlers and tin-pot dictators or blood-crazed war lords bent on carving out a kingdom from the flesh of their victims. Helene Cooper's family certainly had its share of flawed characters, but their lifestyle wasn't vastly different from Americans in similar economic circumstances. Their This tender memoir shows us a side of society that exists in many African countries but is seldom portrayed--the upper middle class. I found it refreshing to read about the lives of Africans of means who aren't embezzlers and tin-pot dictators or blood-crazed war lords bent on carving out a kingdom from the flesh of their victims. Helene Cooper's family certainly had its share of flawed characters, but their lifestyle wasn't vastly different from Americans in similar economic circumstances. Their fates, of course, were very different and her handling of the impact of the turmoil in Liberia on her family gives the book some serious drama.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Just A. Bean

    Excellent exploration of both Liberia's history and a young woman's struggle figure out what that history means to her, and how she defines herself in regard to it. The author did a great job of weaving the two together, so we could see at the same time what she was seeing at the time v. what people from other classes were seeing v. the wider political and historical context. Very compellingly written, and had the kind of self-awareness that I don't see in enough memoirs. I had this read aloud by Excellent exploration of both Liberia's history and a young woman's struggle figure out what that history means to her, and how she defines herself in regard to it. The author did a great job of weaving the two together, so we could see at the same time what she was seeing at the time v. what people from other classes were seeing v. the wider political and historical context. Very compellingly written, and had the kind of self-awareness that I don't see in enough memoirs. I had this read aloud by the author, who was a bit choppy in her delivery, but really added a lot by speaking the Liberian English parts correctly.

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