The House at Sugar Beach

In Search of a Lost African Childhood

The House at Sugar Beach

Journalist Helene Cooper examines the violent past of her home country Liberia and the effects of its 1980 military coup in this deeply personal memoir and finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award.

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 known 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 soldiers staged a coup d'état, 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 tells of tragedy, forgiveness, and transcendence with unflinching honesty and a survivor's gentle humor. And at its heart, it is a story of Helene Cooper’s long voyage home.
  • Simon & Schuster | 
  • 384 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743266253 | 
  • July 2009
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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions:
1. The first sentence of Helene Cooper's memoir is, "This is a story about rogues." Did you find this statement to be true? What sort of rogues did Helene fear she would encounter in Liberia?
2. Why do you think Helene chose to title her memoir The House at Sugar Beach even though she spent only seven years of her life there? What about the house is metaphorical for her entire childhood? Her entire life?
3. Discuss the role of religion in Helene's childhood. When did she pray? For what did she pray?
4. Throughout her childhood in Liberia Helene wishes to become a "been-to." When she moved to Knoxville in 1980 it "seemed like a place where [she] was trapped, prison far from home." How does she eventually make the States seem more like home?
5. Discuss Helene's relationship with Eunice in the house at Sugar Beach. What were some of the experiences they shared that made it clear that Eunice was more than a "live-in playmate"? How does the relationship evolve over the course of their lives?
6. Why do you think Helene and her sisters played, "when war time come"? Did Helene paint anything about the national unrest going on in Liberia? Did circumstances or events she experienced in her early life portend war?
7. Helene spends her childhood fearing seemingly harmless entities like negee and heartmen. Then we learn that her classmate Richard was indeed chased by a heartman, and on see more

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About the Author

Helene Cooper
Leslie Cashen

Helene Cooper

Helene Cooper is the Pulitzer Prize–winning Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, having previously served as White House Correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, and the assistant editorial page editor. Prior to moving to the Times, Helene spent twelve years as a reporter and foreign correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of the bestselling memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, and Madame President, a biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She was born in Monrovia, Liberia, and lives in the Washington, DC area.