Recently, I was given a book, “The House at Sugar Beach” by Helene Cooper. Ms. Cooper was born in Liberia and was raised there until the military coup in 1980. The book is her memoir of her childhood and life after leaving Liberia after the coup.
Her story starts in 1973 when her father, John Cooper Jr. built a “22 room behemoth” house in Sugar Beach, a community on the Atlantic Coast, 11 miles outside of Monrovia. Her family are descendants of Congo people, the freed American slaves who chose to return to Africa and found Liberia in 1822. According to Ms. Cooper, “Congo” is a derogatory term from the native Liberia and the Congo people called the natives “County People.” Her family tree is deep in Liberia’s history on both sides as well as its government officials. Her family had wealth and prestige while most of the country lived in third world conditions.
When Ms. Cooper was 11 years old, her family took in a foster daughter as a companion for her. Eunice was native Liberian from the Bassa group. Ms. Cooper goes into great details about her childhood and growing up in Liberia. She also gives a great deal of the history of Liberia. The details gives the reader an understanding about the rising tensions between the Congo and the native peoples.
April 14, 1979, the first battle in the rising of the natives. It was a small skirmish but it showed the evidence that tempers were rising. The Country people were fighting for change. President Tolbert began to implement a plan that was trying to make Liberia self-sufficient and less dependent on foreign goods. The result was prices and inflation skyrocketing. The government sponsored ads to tell the people it was all okay. It didn’t work and riots broke out. One year almost to the day of the first battle, a group of native Liberians stormed the Executive Mansion, killing the president and put is wife and children under house arrest. Ms. Cooper’s mother would take her and her little sister, Marlene, to the U.S. Life began in the U.S. in Tennessee where Ms. Cooper struggled to fit in with anyone. To the Black community, she wasn’t black enough. She would soon move to North Carolina to be with her father as her mother moves back to Liberia in order to collect rents due to the family. There Ms. Cooper found her niche and joined the school newspaper. She decided on a career in journalism and would attended the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
As she began her journalism career, she began to realize the depths of despair that her home country had fallen. Coup after coup overthrew the previous government and the country sunk lower and lower. She thought about all the people she left behind especially her foster sister, Eunice. She makes it her mission to go back to Liberia and find Eunice.
Ms. Cooper’s memoir is a fast read about a young girl who would learn world politics when most children aren’t aware there is a world outside their hometown. She gives great insight into a country I knew little about. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested learning about a country and a young girl who grew up there.