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The Brown Girl World: Helene's Story




Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Helene Cooper is "Congo," a descendant of two Liberian dynasties - traced back to the first ship of freemen that set sail from New York in 1820 to found Monrovia.  Helene grew up at Sugar Beach, a twenty-two-room mansion by the sea.  Her childhood was filled with servants, flashy cars, a villa in Spain, and a farmhouse up-country.  It was also an African childhood, filled with knock foot games and hot pepper soup, heartmen and neegee.  When Helene was eight, the Coopers took in a foster child - a common custom among the Liberian elite.  Eunice, a Bassa girl, suddenly became know as "Mrs. Cooper's daughter."
For years the Cooper daughters - Helene, her sister Marlene, and Eunice - blissfully enjoyed the trappings of wealth and advantage.  But Liberia was like an unwatched pot of water left boiling on the stove.  And on April 12, 1980, a group of soliders staged a coup d'etat, assassinating President William Tolbert and executing his cabinet.  The Coopers and the entire Congo class were now the hunted, being imprisoned, shot, tortured, and raped.  After a brutal daylight attack by a ragtag crew of soldiers, Helene, Marlene, and their mother fled Sugar Beach, and then Liberia, for America.  They left Eunice behind.
A world away, Helene tried to assimilate as an American teenager.  At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill she found her passion in journalism, eventually becoming a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.  She reported from every part of the globe - except Africa - as Liberia descended into war-torn, third-world hell.
In 2003, a near-death experience in Iraq convinced Helene that Liberia - and Eunice - could wait no longer.
At once a deeply personal memoir and an examination of a violent and stratified country, The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood tells of tragedy, forgiveness, and transcendence with unflinching honesty and a survivor's gentle humor.  And at it's heart, it is a story of Helene Cooper's long voyage home.

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