In Search of a Lost African Childhood
by Helene Cooper
read by the author
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2008
9 hours and 30 minutes
In this poignant memoir, New York Times journalist Helene Cooper tells the story of her privileged Liberian childhood cut brutally short by a bloody 1980 coup, her family's escape and survival, and twenty three years later, her return to her native country to find the foster sister her family left behind.
The cheery yellow cover prominently displayed in area Starbucks first caught my eye, but it would take another year to download the audio version from audible.com. Although my knowledge of Liberia is limited, Cooper provided just the right amount of historical background to make sense of the political unrest, coups, and years of civil war. What I found even more fascinating, however, was the juxtaposition of political tensions with typical teenage concerns. While Cooper was growing up, the riots and executions occurred alongside the Sadie Hawkins dance, a new crush, and her reading of the latest trashy romance novels.
Cooper's family belongs to the elite group known as "Congo" people. Their ancestry can be traced to the first settlers of freemen that came from New York in 1820 and founded Monrovia. She was raised in a mansion with servants and attended private school. As was often the custom, the family took in a Bassa girl, named Eunice, as a foster child and raised her as their own. Her relatives held high government positions before the coup. Afterwards, some were executed and some fled. Eunice went back to her village when the Cooper family left in 1980.
"When we climbed aboard Pan Am 150, we were privileged, elite Congo People. When we arrived in Knoxville, we were African refugees."
Cooper's high school and college experience, cultural assimilation, and career in journalism (inspired by reading All The President's Men) is the focus of the rest of the book. A job with The Wall Street Journal job allowed her to travel the world, but Cooper would not go to Africa. It was a near-death experience in Iraq ("wrong country, wrong war") that finally convinced her to return to Liberia... and Eunice.
This was an excellent audio production. The author has a captivating writing style, but her own voice, especially when it came to Liberian English, added much to the experience. However, I also borrowed a print copy from the library since photos, maps, and a family tree are included. Highly recommended.