2008 Autobiography Finalist The House on Sugar Beach, by Helene Cooper

by Jennifer Reese | Feb-12-2009

Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Jennifer Reese discusses Helene Cooper’s The House on Sugar Beach (Simon & Schuster)

In 2003, Helene Cooper, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, almost died in a Humvee accident while covering the invasion of Iraq. Her reaction was a strange one. “What a stupid war to die in,” Cooper thought. “I should die in a war in Liberia.”

The result of Cooper’s near-death epiphany is her plangent memoir, The House on Sugar Beach. Born to Liberian aristocracy, the descendants of the country’s 19th-century American-born black founders, Cooper spent the first 14 years of her life as a member of Africa’s privileged upper class, with a 22-room house, servants (known as “boys”), vacations in Spain, and ballet lessons. When she was 8, her parents effectively bought her a live-in playmate, a poor girl named Eunice who grew up as her sister.

Cooper beautifully evokes the vanished world of (relatively) peaceful 1970s Liberia. Her Mommee was pretty and stylish, her Daddy a boozy ladies man. There were flirtations and dances and Lincoln Town Cars, along with evil spirits and chicken sacrifices.

Then, in 1980, came the revolution that ended it all. Cooper’s uncle was shot, her mother gang-raped, and the country ravaged by the first of many violent upheavals. (Remember news photographs of teenaged rebels in fright wigs and bridal gowns? That was Liberia.) Cooper’s family fled to safety in the United States, but they didn’t bring Eunice with them. The adopted sister stayed behind to fend for herself.

Twenty-four years later, finding Eunice becomes Cooper’s mission. But like so many quests, it is simultaneously a reckoning with her own sad history. Her lovely book is the story of the search for a sister, but also a valentine to the lost world and people of her youth, and an attempt to accept their passing.

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