'Beach' is a life of sea changes

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 2008 - 12:11 PM

A well-born daughter of the Liberian elite sees her whole world change with civil war.

The House at Sugar Beach, by Helene Cooper

Helene Cooper grew up rich and privileged in a mansion by the sea. She was a member of Liberia's elite; her parents were Congo people, descended from the freed American slaves who founded the country.

Helene wore American jeans, attended private school and had a pink bedroom where she was afraid to sleep. She feared the spirits that she saw in the corners, and she feared the heartmen, who will cut your still-beating heart out of your chest with machetes.

So her parents went out and got her a live-in friend to keep her company. Eunice was Country people, and her family was poor.

The friendship between Helene and Eunice was slow to take root, but eventually it flourished. They became as close as sisters -- until civil war drove them apart. Their childhood, and their reconciliation years later, are the heart of Cooper's riveting memoir, "The House at Sugar Beach."

Cooper's bar for this book was high; there is much to understand before it can release its power. You have to understand the history of Liberia, how it was built by American freed slaves who displaced native Africans. You have to understand the tensions between Congo people and Country people, as well as the tensions among all of the tribes. And you have to understand how someone can love a place down to their bones and yet still walk away.

Cooper handles the context masterfully, folding it naturally into the narrative.

Helene's privileged childhood seems fragile from the start. Rogues loot the house at night, carting away ivory. The heartmen lurk in the shadows; the neegees wait under the waves to pull her down when she swims.

Nothing feels permanent. So it is not a surprise when her life is broken open not once, but twice -- first by her Daddy, who says he wants a divorce. And then by civil war.

Life in war is horrifying. Helene's uncle is executed and her mother is gang-raped. One brutal leader is deposed by another, even more brutal leader, and the Coopers flee for the United States. But Eunice stays behind.

We are not refugees, Mommee tells Helene. We bought our own plane tickets. Still, their lives are entirely changed, living in poverty in a crowded apartment in Tennessee.

For years, Helene does her best to put Liberia, and Eunice, out of her mind. She goes to college and builds a career as a globe-trotting journalist. But eventually she heads back to Africa to make her peace.

Minnesota has a large Liberian population, and Cooper spent time here during college, interning at the St. Paul Skyway News. (She is now with the New York Times.)

Her book is a remarkable, human account that brings her country to life -- the smells, the people, the lyrical way they use language. Seen through her eyes, Liberia is not just a dangerous, far-off country, but a vibrant and fascinating place. And it's a place that Cooper comes to realize will always be her home -- even as it is plundered by rogues.

Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor.

  • THE HOUSE AT SUGAR BEACH

    By: Helene Cooper.

    Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $25.

    Review: Cooper's memoir of growing up in Liberia evokes the smells, the love and vibrant language as well as the oppression and horrors of civil war.

    Event: 5 p.m. Tuesday, Adult Education Center, 7051 Brooklyn Blvd., Brooklyn Center; 8 p.m., Tuesday, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls .

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