It is so, so rare to find a memoir that can blend fact, experience, personal and political history, and a conversational tone and deliver something so pitch-perfect that you can't put it down. I managed to read Cooper's lovely account of her privileged girlhood in Liberia, followed by her escape to America as a refugee and successful career as a journalist, in about three and a half hours (roughly the time it took for me to fly to Portland and back). It was that engaging and gripping; touching without being manipulative, and informative without being pedantic.
Cooper begins with a short history of the country of Liberia itself - the only American attempt at colonization - and traces her own roots back to the founders of the country through both her mother and father. The author neatly encapsulates the background and peppers it with enough details and anecdotes to keep it from becoming dusty or dry. Fast forwarding nearly a hundred and fifty years, Cooper describes her childhood as a daughter of a wealthy and influential family; her father built a luxurious estate in a secluded suburb of the city of Monrovia, a home that the family called "Sugar Beach." Cooper's parents, who already had children of their own, brought a poor native girl named Eunice to live with the family in order to keep Helene and her sister Marlene company. Eunice was treated well and loved by the girls as a sister, but the Liberian caste system prevented her from truly belonging to the family. Cooper evokes vivid memories of parties, private school, clothes from America, vacations, fancy cars, and handsome boys as she describes a charmed girlhood. Then overnight, a coup destroyed the delicate balance of Liberian life and families such as the Coopers were marked for death. Helene watched her uncle, a government official, executed on television. In a matter of weeks Helene, Marlene, and their mother refugeed from Liberia and fled to America as the world they left behind crumbled and burned, giving way to a new world where women were raped and slaughtered and children were orphaned and forced into militias. Eunice had to be left behind, and Helene didn't see her again for decades.
After the coup and the escape, the Coopers built a new life in America, but Helene was never comfortable, and they moved around quite a bit. John Cooper eventually went back to Liberia and died there; Calista and Marlene Cooper also returned but came back to the U.S. after several years. Only Helene never cared to go back. Helene dedicated herself to her studies and became a reporter at UNC, then moved on to a journalism career that took her to the Wall Street Journal and later all over the world, but she locked away her feelings on Liberia and focused on her new life as an American, preferring to forget her past, until she found herself in Iraq in the beginning of the war and narrowly avoided dying in an attack. Helene Cooper picked herself up, dusting herself off, and decided that if she were going to die in a war, it should be Liberia. Her decision brought her face to face with the horrors she never wanted to see again, but it also brought her back to Eunice, and gave her a second chance that should probably never have happened.
A story like this should be trite. It should make you roll your eyes and sigh derisively. The beauty of The House at Sugar Beach is that, instead, it makes your heart ache and your eyes tear in the best of ways. (I fully admit to crying a little while reading the description of Helene's father's death, although I was surreptiously trying to knuckle the tears away lest the air hostess ask me if I was all right and embarrass me on a plane full of strangers.) It made me wonder why I didn't know more about Liberia or the atrocities committed there, and it made me respect someone who took the pieces of a shattered life and rebuilt them while she was still just a child, and then had the courage to risk that fragile existence by going back as an adult. Cooper keeps it real in the best sense of the word, being matter-of-fact without being cold, being honest without being callous, and being true without being exploitative. The mixture of emotion and fact is beautifully balanced, and makes for a bittersweet story with the happiest ending it could have had.