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‘A Bank Full of Tears’
Nine Years Under by Sheri Booker
Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home
2013, Gotham Books, NY, 258 pages
Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs are a research requisite for the novelist and the nonfiction writer. Such works are particularly important when researching the other gender, and cultures the writer has not had a lot of experience with. Another priceless aspect of reading an account of a person’s life is learning about their trade, their profession, their calling. When I saw Nine Years Under I immediately knew that it had all of those ingredients. By the first page I also knew it would be a quick and entertaining read.
Sheri is a superb nonfiction writer.
If you are just looking for a good, different read, pick Nine Years Under up. You will be glad you did. Below I will discuss how Sheri Booker’s memoir was useful to me as a writer of fiction and nonfiction.
Female memoirs and autobiographies that focus on celebrated careers, and the men in the lives of these women, are easy to come by. For that matter, I could interview any number of women as to the relationships they have had with men. Nine Years Under is a coming of age book, that takes a girl into womanhood, not in the context of being a performer or a girlfriend and wife, but through the eyes of a female person growing up in the workplace; finding out about the adult world firsthand.
As an employment study the funeral business, with the guild-like clannish ways of the morticians, and the support work, was fascinating. More importantly we get to see what it is like for a young person to come of age in a small family business. Al Wylie, ‘mercurial’ operator of a Baltimore funeral home, and deacon in the local church, is, like many small business owners, the type of person who could not work for a larger organization. The odd fact is that many small business owners are in business for themselves, because they have quirks that make them unfit for employment or leadership roles in larger organizations. Mix this with a unique skill set and an intimate but skewed knowledge of their business, and working one’s way up through one of these small organizations as a youth becomes a series of trials and tribulations.
Black Baltimore is often seen—through urban fiction and my Harm City writing for instance—primarily from the poor or criminal perspective. Popular culture has primarily engaged the elements of black American life that focus on criminality, entertainment, racism, and poverty. Sheri’s story, however, is one of middle class black America, with a window on the ugly world I just mentioned. When Sheri was a young teenager, her first week on the job, she worked as an usher for the victim of a gang-related shooting, and overheard the deceased’s brothers discussing plans for revenge.
There are also the all-important cultural aspects of growing as a child. On page 9 Sheri describes how her favorite toy was broken by a friend, and her father beat her with a belt for neglecting the toy. She explains further how she did not hold this against her father, writing of her parents’ stern treatment of her and her sister, “It is how they had been raised by their own parents, and they continued the tradition.”
An anthropologist that was not in fear of censure, or some politically incorrect researcher such as myself, would point out that it only requires a handful of generations of parents willing to ‘continue the tradition’ of whipping with belts, before we get back to 1865, and have to deal with the fact that freed slaves were whipping their children with belts because that is how they had been disciplined by their owners, and it was kinder than the whip they had been tormented with. Through such incidental biographical offerings one can trace traditions down through the generations to their point of origin, and understand how actions we have attributed to choice are in fact behaviors deeply encoded in our psyche through informal cultural transmission within the family.
Sheri Booker ends Nine Years Under on a transitory note, not permitting her story to die along with her heart-wrenching occupation.
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