The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood
by Helene Cooper
(Simon & Schuster, $25)
Helene Cooper was 8 when her mother bought her a friend. Cooper was Liberian royalty, a descendent of the black Americans who had founded the West African nation in 1821. She had all the Jackson 5 albums and Nancy Drew novels a girl of the early 1970s could want. But nights in her family’s 22-room coastal mansion were frightening to her until Eunice, a bowlegged Bassa girl, came to keep her company. Quickly, Helene and Eunice became like sisters—except that the family didn’t include Eunice in vacations or send her to the other children’s private school. When a 1980 coup d’état provoked mass slaughter of Liberia’s ruling elite, the Coopers fled and left Eunice behind.
“To understand what happened in Liberia is to understand what happened in much of Africa,” said Tina Jordan in Entertainment Weekly. Cooper’s “slim, searing memoir” recounts its author’s blissful childhood days and her teenage struggle to adjust to the role of awkward immigrant in 1980s America. But at its heart is Cooper’s shocked awakening to the hatred that 95 percent of Liberians apparently felt toward elite “Congo people” such as her family. “Did Eunice feel that way, too?” she asks. Nearly three decades after Cooper bid her playmate goodbye at a rain-soaked airport, she was covering the war in Iraq for The New York Times, when she decided she had to return to Liberia to track Eunice down. She tells the story “not like a seasoned journalist” but “like a poet.”
Cooper had many ghosts to confront, said Caroline Elkins in The New York Times. Cooper’s old house stands as a “communal headstone” for “unknown numbers” of victims of the rebellion. But “Eunice had miraculously endured” years of civil war and military rule. While Cooper’s “tendency to fasten on minutiae” sometimes slows down her narrative, said Wendy Kann in The Washington Post, Eunice has a talent for cutting to the chase. “Y’all were a good Congo group,” she says, damning the Coopers with the faintest praise. That observation “must have hurt.”