I got lost in The House at Sugar Beach. When I figured out where I had been, 352 pages and five hours later, I had learned much about the 1980 coup that turned Liberia upside down.
Journalist Helene Cooper is a descendant of the original settlers who left New York and Norfolk, Virginia to start a new country in Africa in the early 1800s. She captivated me by weaving the threads of these early settlers' lives, intertwining the sisters, half-sisters, half-brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who made up her family and heritage.
Cooper has lived a privileged life. She writes, "...those two men handed down to me a one-in-a-million lottery ticket: birth into what passed for the landed gentry upper class of Africa's first independent country, Liberia." Her parents' position in the country included government employment insulating them from the poor country people who made up the majority of the population and replicated the slave economy of the pre-Civil War South in the U.S.
This memoir shows Helene growing up with Eunice Bull, a country girl acquired by her parents to be a sister to Helene. They grew up together, but there were differences. They shared the same experiences, read the same books, lived in the same house and slept in the same room. However, they separated during holidays, attended separate schools, and when the violence erupted during the 1980s, Helene went to the U.S. and Eunice stayed in Liberia. That's the way it was.
Twenty-three years later, Helene went back to Liberia to search for her sister, Eunice and their lost childhood. Pictures of her family and a map showing the location of the towns mentioned in the book add to this sublime narrative.
Helene Cooper is the diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times. Prior to that assignment, she was the assistant editorial page editor and foreign correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. She was born in Monrovia, Liberia, and lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
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