RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
As a foreign correspondent, Helene Cooper has seen countries torn apart by war. But it is the violent past of the country where she was born that compelled her to write a memoir. Its title, "The House at Sugar Beach," recalls the peaceful childhood she left behind when her family fled Liberia in 1980. The upper-class Cooper family descended from freed American slaves who founded Liberia. When she was a little girl, Helene's father moved them all to a mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with servants and groundskeepers and 22 rooms.
Ms. HELENE COOPER (Diplomatic Correspondent, The New York Times; Author, "The House at Sugar Beach"): Marble floors, it was a testament really to a 1970s-era wealth, and it sort of showed the stature of my family in a land where stature is sometimes seen to matter above all else.
MONTAGNE: For young Helene, the mansion's vast spaces offered plenty of room for the spirits and bogymen of her vivid imagination. She was so afraid to sleep alone in her brand new pink bedroom that her parents decided she needed a full-time companion.
Ms. COOPER: So, they went out to a native Liberian family and brought me back a sister. This was common practice in Liberia, where poor people routinely brought their children to be raised by the richer families.
MONTAGNE: There's a little passage - it's actually quite a sweet little passage in the book towards the beginning - when Eunice arrives. And it really goes to the difference between you - your little 8-year-old self and Eunice, who was at that time about 11. Why don't you just read it from when you're showing Eunice this fancy Sugar Beach mansion of yours?
(Soundbite of memoir "The House at Sugar Beach")
Ms. COOPER (Reading): Eunice trailed after me as I turned and walked through the paneled tunnel that led to our recreation room. She took in daddy's bar, the playroom with our stereo set, and the toy room with all of its dollhouses, teddy bears and games. Wha' down deah? she asked, pointing down the hall. Da' de guest room, I said. Da' where I sleepin'? No, you upstai'. Ma sister Janice duh sleep there when she come home from England, I said. This new girl had better be taking note that this was no flim-flack family she was moving in with, I thought. We had a sister who went to boarding school in England.
MONTAGNE: Now, of course, your whole family came to love her, and she became a sister to you. But, you know, at this moment in time, this is a couple of things, and one of it is you're speaking Liberian English?
Ms. COOPER: I am. It's amazing, I still think in Liberian English, and I still speak Liberian English in my head. But Liberian English is sort of a Creole English, and it's a mixture of American phrases, British phrases, and a lot of African phrases, and we run our words together very, very fast.
MONTAGNE: Now, you know, in the 1970s, when you were growing up, although most Americans would not realize this, the privileged descendants of the original American freed men, like yourself and your family, they were still quite connected to America, I mean, down to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Ms. COOPER: And the flag. The flag looks just like the American flag. And the Pledge of Allegiance - with the exception of the fact that the Liberian one does not say under God - is exactly the same. I mean, Liberia was founded by freed blacks, as you just mentioned. And my great-great-great-great, four greats, grandfather Elijah Johnson was on the first ship that sailed to West Africa from New York in 1820. I think it was remarkably courageous of them to be going to Africa. But at the same time, they got there and established the same sort of antebellum society that they had fled from here. And that's always been sort of the contradiction of my upbringing.
MONTAGNE: As you say, your ancestor Elijah Johnson kind of came over on the Mayflower and became the George Washington. But really they were - from the point of view of the tribal people who were there, these people coming from America were colonizers.
Ms. COOPER: Absolutely. And they behaved much the same way that the European colonizers in other African countries did. I think they believed that they were coming to Africa in part to bring religion to the heathen Africans. Over the years, the settlers became, you know, the land barons, and the native Africans ended up being the farmers and the tenants and the servants. And 150 years of this sort of - you know, when I was finally born in 1966, it was completely established and entrenched.
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, this - I mean, by your description for a little Liberian girl who was of your, I guess, privileged status, life was good.
Ms. COOPER: It was. I look back now and, you know, I got a one-in-a-trillion lottery ticket, you know, birth into the landed gentry, upper class of - you know, what passed for it, at least - of Africa's first independent country. And we were very carefree while all around us, political tensions were brewing. And I was completely oblivious to it. I was focused on ballet class and my piano lessons, and this was the way it was supposed to be.
MONTAGNE: So it must have been a terrible shock to you at 14 - 1980 - the government is overthrown by an army sergeant by the name of Samuel Doe, and the Liberia that you knew began to descend rather quickly into years of really unspeakable violence. I mean, some pretty terrible things happened to your family.
Ms. COOPER: Yeah. It seems like a dream. I can see it so clearly, though, you know, the way I felt when the soldiers came into the yard, and I could smell the alcohol on their breath as they ordered us out of the house. And my mother went down with the soldiers, you know, not really - I thought they were going to kill her, and not realizing what they were about to do. My mother ended up sacrificing herself to save me in, you know, what I still think of as a singular act of, you know, motherly love and courage.
MONTAGNE: Your family got out, although the civil war had very, very nightmarish qualities to it for those who had to stay there.
Ms. COOPER: It really did. It wasn't necessarily just a matter of armies fighting each other. There were attacks - so many attacks on civilians and on children and on women. So many children were kidnapped, particularly the boys, and drugged and forced to become child soldiers. There was this one rebel general called General Butt Naked who led the butt naked brigade of child soldiers, many of them children he kidnapped and later killed. His battle attire included sneakers, a gun, and sometimes a lady's purse. Other than that, he was naked, although his soldiers often wore women's clothes, bridal gowns, and blonde wigs. It was really horrific.
MONTAGNE: You didn't go back for 23 more years. When you went back, did it offer you a sense of being able to return home?
Ms. COOPER: It filled up a hole that had been inside me. Going back home reminded me that I was from somewhere. You know, as I got off at the airport, I could smell Liberia, I could smell the dried fish and the burnt coal fires, and it smelt like home. You know, the place looks completely wrecked, but at the same time, I felt as if this is my home, this is somewhere that my ancestors had built with their own blood and sweat. And it was a really messed-up place, but it was still mine.
MONTAGNE: Helene Cooper is now the diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times. Her memoir is called "The House at Sugar Beach." This is NPR News.