A contemplative memoir of a privileged life in a poor place.
The house of the title stood, and perhaps still stands, 11 miles from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Born there in 1966, New York Times special correspondent Cooper (whose beat is now Condoleezza Rice) had the run of that “perfect and perfectly grand paradise,” with its five bedrooms and three bathrooms and baby grand piano, all “protected from the ravages of West African squalor and poverty by central air-conditioning, strategically placed coconut trees, and a private water well.” Yet, though perched on a hill above the rest, the house was no fortress. As Cooper writes, it was a magnet for rogues—burglars, that is, as distinct from thieves, who “worked for the government and stole money from the public treasury.” Lighter-skinned than many of her compatriots, Cooper was also an “Honorable,” one of the ethnic and social elite who lorded it over the poorer “Country” people of Liberia. A Country man with a Harvard doctorate, notes the author, would still rank below an Honorable “with a two-bit degree from some community college in Memphis, Tennessee.” In childhood games, it was the Honorables who got to shoot the Country people, and the Country people who got to play dead. Such are the perfect ingredients for a civil war, and civil war is what came. When it did, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe, members of Cooper’s family were killed, her mother raped, an adopted sister lost, her family scattered and sent into exile in America. These terrible events occur at the book’s midpoint. What remains—rendered with aching nostalgia and wonderful language (“Wartime come, when they be evacuating people, you will be glad I not tryin to get on no helicopter in heels”)—is a voyage of return, through which the author seeks to recover the past and to find that missing sister, even as the war deepens over the years to come.
Elegant and eloquent, and full of news from places about which we know too little.