A review by JINA MOORE
MARCH 17, 2017
The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
By Helene Cooper
Illustrated. 320 pp. Simon & Schuster. $27.
Cooper restores the texture of Liberia to Johnson Sirleaf’s life story, making this a propulsive biography, but it ultimately feels subservient to its subject — valorizing Johnson Sirleaf rather than complicating her.
When Africa’s first female president was only a few days old, her parents received a visitor, “the Old Man,” whose anonymity is part of the apocrypha. He stared into her crib and declared, “This child will be great.” At least, that’s how Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — Nobel Peace Prize winner and two-term president of Liberia — renders his words in her 2009 memoir.
Helene Cooper’s biography of Johnson Sirleaf starts with the same story, but with a twist. “Actually, that is not what he said — no Liberian talks like that,” Cooper writes in the opening of “Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” Cooper returns the prophecy to the Liberian English in which she imagines it was proffered: “Ma, de pekin wa’na easy oh.”
For politicians, origin stories are also tools of power, and Cooper’s choice to start here is an allegory for her approach to her subject. Cooper restores the texture of Liberia to Johnson Sirleaf’s life story, making this a propulsive biography, but it ultimately feels subservient to its subject — valorizing Johnson Sirleaf rather than complicating her.
Much of Cooper’s book reads as if she means to do for Liberia’s president what she thought the president failed to do for herself: to craft a story whose emotional arc is irresistible even to readers with little interest in a far-off place and its politics. The locality, the experience of life in Liberia, is beautifully conveyed in “Madame President.” Cooper excavates local details and lingers on the place’s patois. She also deploys her own authority as a Liberian-born American with precision. We hear it in the strong-voiced correction that starts Cooper’s book; in her subtle argument that the world responded to Ebola only when white doctors were infected; in the brazen use, twice, of the word “lobotomy” to describe the drastic measures needed to improve Liberia’s culture around governance and public health.
Reviews in Goodreads :Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson …