Reviewed by Wendy Kann
Sunday, August 31, 2008
THE HOUSE AT SUGAR BEACH
In Search of a Lost African Childhood
By Helene Cooper
Simon & Schuster. 354 pp. $25
On Feb. 6, 1820, the American Colonization Society, an incongruous mix of mostly Quakers and slaveholders, dispatched a ship from New York Harbor in a bold experiment to repatriate 88 freeborn blacks to Africa's steamy west coast. When the vessel arrived at its destination a few months later, its passengers, far from being welcomed, were regarded with hostile suspicion by a native population still ruthlessly plying the slave trade. For two years, the increasingly ragged immigrants trolled that shore, burying their brethren in one malarial swamp after another until Elijah Johnson, a former U.S. soldier, finally stood on a tiny island that offered neither shelter nor fresh water and refused to move. A country called Liberia was founded.
Helene Cooper, formerly with the Wall Street Journal and now diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, is Elijah Johnson's great-great-great-great-granddaughter. The House at Sugar Beach is her dramatic memoir of Liberia in the years preceding and after its savage revolution in 1980. Along with other descendants of freed black colonists, Cooper's family formed an elite firmly in control of Liberia's wealth and government. They were known as Congo people. The indigenous African tribes, which made up 95 percent of the Liberian population, subsisted in poverty. They were called Country people.
When Cooper was 8, her father moved the family from the relative safety of Congo Town, a suburb of the capital Monrovia, to a three-storied mansion 11 miles out of the city on an isolated stretch called Sugar Beach. Their new house had five acres of lawn, central air conditioning and solid marble floors. It also had a toy room, playroom, recreation room, bar, sunken lounge and music room complete with a rock-faced wall and a baby grand piano overlooking the sea.
At Sugar Beach, Cooper was fearful of the deep African night. Buried under bedclothes in her new pink bedroom, she whimpered until her exhausted parents finally summoned a Country girl to keep her company, apparently standard practice in that society. Soon a bewildered, bowlegged 11-year-old named Eunice Bull, skinny and stuttering, was obligingly delivered to the estate. She ran away from her new foster home twice, but each time her destitute mother dragged her back. "In Liberia in 1974, it was the chance of a lifetime to leave a poor Country family and move in with the Coopers," the author tells us.
The Coopers were very good to Eunice. Sort of. They educated her, but not at their own daughters' expensive school; they provided her with fashionable clothes, but didn't take her on the family vacations to Spain. When Liberia exploded in violence in 1980, rebel solders gang-raped Cooper's mother in the house at Sugar Beach. They publicly executed her uncle, a member of the Liberian cabinet. The Coopers, along with most Congos, fled as Liberia spiraled into a maelstrom of unimaginable terror. They did not take Eunice with them.
Helene Cooper went on to become a renowned American journalist, peering into practically every corner of the world but the land of her forefathers. It was only 23 years later, after a narrow escape as an embedded reporter in Iraq -- "what a stupid place to die. What a stupid war to die in," she found herself thinking -- that she had an epiphany and returned to Liberia to reclaim her childhood and reunite with her "Country sister."
The House at Sugar Beach is the result: a brilliant spotlight on a land too long forgotten. Through Cooper, we breathe Liberia's coal smoke and fish-tangy air; we taste its luscious palm butter on rice and hear the charming patter of Liberian English. We trot to church, to the family plantation and to Grandma's house. Cooper is tongue-in-cheek about Congo excesses but sometimes skimpy on context. I had to look up the proportion of Congo to Country people, for example. Also, her often-confessed tendency to fasten on minutiae ("papering over a seismic moment in my life by focusing on the superficial," she calls it) works against narrative drive. As a white Zimbabwean, I am painfully familiar with how we old colonials tend to turn away. Sometimes it seems the only antidote to terror, wrenching loyalties and unspeakable guilt. Still, looking, really looking, might have added a level of emotional impact that this memoir doesn't quite reach.
Eunice, on the other hand, seems to see with crystal clarity. When Cooper finally finds her in ruined Liberia, the adopted sister damns their relationship with faint praise: "Y'all were a good Congo group," she says. The throwaway observation had to have hurt. Cooper, I am certain, would join me in a fervent hope that the cruel distinctions between "groups" in Africa will one day vanish. Then, perhaps, our common humanity will be the only thing that counts. ·
Wendy Kann is the author of a memoir, "Casting with a Fragile Thread: A Story of Sisters and Africa."