Sheri Booker, the author of Nine Years Under (2013), presents her story of how she prematurely learned about misfortune when she was only under the age of 15. The book describes the personal story of a young protagonist who had to work at the Albert Wylie Funeral House after the death of girl’s Aunt Mary. However, Nine Years Under provides insights not only into the personal development of the protagonist but also in the understanding of the complex social situation around her. The book is thought provoking and important because it allows representing the difficult social situation and the problems of gang violence and drugs in the United States from the personal point of view. The intended audience of the book is persons who were teenagers during the 1990s and modern young people. This critique discusses the Nine Years Under written by Sheri Booker from the sociological perspective, analyzing how the protagonist of the story was influenced by events that occurred to her during nine years and what social environments affected the protagonist’s development.
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The historical setting of the story told by Sheri Booker is Inner-City Baltimore during the controversial period of the 1990s when streets of Baltimore were full of youth gangs, and people died from AIDS and drug addiction. It is the period of Sheri’s adolescence when the girl faced many challenges and sufferings. Sheri was only 15-year-old when she had to witness the person’s sufferings and workers from nursing home passing through their small and cozy family house in Baltimore. The reason for such inconvenience and change of lifestyle was the disease of Aunt Mary, who had an inoperable tumor and was slowly dying from cancer. After Mary’s death, Sheri felt that her life was ruined, and she noted in the book: “After Aunt Mary died, the ground beneath me shifted. I expected the world to pause for my grief – and it didn’t, not even for a moment of silence” (Booker, 2013, p. 13). Under such conditions, while still recovering from the death of Aunt Mary and shaking from the grief that surrounded her, Sheri experienced more unexpected changes in her life.
One Sunday, the teenager met Al Wylie, who was an owner of a funeral house where Sheri’s parents were arranging a funeral of Aunt Mary. The meeting of Sheri and Al was entirely unexpected, and it changed the girl’s life because she expressed an intention of working in his funeral parlor. Sheri received the consent from her parents and started her job at the Albert Wylie Funeral House. The girl was only 15-year-old, and she intended to work at the funeral house for only one summer. Instead, Sheri stayed working as an employee of Albert Wylie for nine long years, and she observed and experienced a lot of painful cases during her practice. The reason was in the fact that the period during which she was working at the Albert Wylie Funeral House was rather unstable, and the population of Baltimore suffered from the spread of drugs, as well as from the intensive gang violence.
The period of the 1990s in Inner-City Baltimore is a period characterized by the gang violence and the social catastrophe. Researchers and sociologists are inclined to associate such a dramatic situation in American society with the consequences of the war on drugs started by the U.S. government in the 1970s and having its culmination in the 1990s (Benson, 2015, para. 9). However, the negative consequences of the war on drugs can be observed in Baltimore even today. According to Morhaim, “there are 60,000 to 80,000 addicts in the Baltimore metropolitan area”, and “each one might need $10 to $100 every day to maintain his or her habit” (Morhaim, 2015, para. 7). As a result, it is possible to state that the problem remains to be acute not only at the local and state levels but also at the governmental one (DiNitto, 2010). This problematic topic is discussed in Booker’s work from many perspectives.
The impact of such a policy as the war on drugs on the ordinary people’s life in Baltimore and similar cities can be discussed in detail with references to Sheri’s memories. In spite of the fact that Sheri was brought up in the family of a policeman and a school administrator, the girl had to face a lot of sufferings and the consequences of the war on drugs while working in the funeral house. Depicting Baltimore environments, Booker states: “Grit and grime tend to avoid the corner of Gilmor Street and Harlem Avenue, where the Albert P. Wylie Funeral Home stands shining like an opaque jewel in the rough” (Booker, 2013, p. 19). The teenager also notes: “Dope fiends linger in the adjacent park waiting on a fix while the neighborhood drug dealers protect their territory on the opposite street corner. The fiends are sometimes rolled through the wide basement door, packaged in a body bag” (Booker, 2013, p. 19). The focus on the role of drug dealers in the city life is vividly expressed in her sarcastic concluding words: “In a way, both groups are providing a service to the community – a steady yet unnatural way to keep the small funeral home thriving” (Booker, 2013, p. 19). Thus, in the 1990s, the city was divided into gangs, and leading parts were played by drug dealers. There were no signs that the war on drugs had positive effects. Booker states in her book that the drug culture “went too deep in the community to be rooted out easily” (Booker, 2013, p. 175). The rates of drug addiction and gang violence increased in the region.
With the help of her book, Sheri Booker discusses not only a life of a worker in a funeral home, but also a life of a teenager who observes how her young friends end their lives in the funeral house as a result of drug abuse of gang attacks. The book shows the transformation of a girl: “Soon I would become one of those people, an insider in a world foreign to the most of humankind, a world that you cannot quite prepare yourself for, a world so mysterious that you can’t envision it in your dreams” (Booker, 2013, p. 20). The protagonist becomes deeply involved in the new world full of adult problems, and the girl is able to observe how drug addiction and violence can ruin the families and relations. Sheri states in her book that some childhood friends “ended up in jail, some ended up on welfare, others ended up on drugs, and some ended up downstairs in the basement of the funeral home” (Booker, 2013, p. 91). This life scenario is mostly observed with references to the young African Americans living in Baltimore. According to Benson and provided statistics, minorities represent “a disproportionately large part of those in jail for drug offenses” (Benson, 2015, para. 11). In addition to placing many young African Americans in jails and spending more than $1.5 trillion on the war on drugs during the period of 1970-2010, there were no real outcomes of the policy, as it is stated by Benson in his article (Benson, 2015, para. 12). The problem seems to be unresolved.
Booker states that no actual social services were provided to the drug addicted persons and young people in gangs during the 1990s. The lack of the social assistance resulted in developing gangs, appearing more drug dealers, and increasing the number of prisoners among the African Americans in Baltimore (Werb, Rowell, Guyatt, Kerr, & Montaner, 2011, p. 88). Morhaim claims that “even with hundreds of police and thousands of National Guardsmen on the street and with the nation’s focus on Baltimore, the crime wave began. And it’s continuing now with a vengeance” (Morhaim, 2015, para. 6). The absence of any social support for the young people and the ineffective anti-drug policy led to more problems for the young African Americans.
Sheri Booker’s Nine Years Under discusses the social problem of drug addiction and gang violence in Baltimore during the period of 1990s with the focus on the author’s personal story and her observations of the social problems through the eyes of a worker at the Albert Wylie Funeral House. The book is important to understand what actual effects the war on drugs started in the 1970s had on the American society, and how this policy was adopted and followed in Baltimore. It is stated in the book that the policy was associated with many deaths of young people and with putting the African Americans in prisons actively. From this point, no actual positive outcomes for the American society were observed.
Benson, T. (2015). The real reason we started the War on Drugs. Web.
Booker, S. (2013). Nine years under: Coming of age in an inner-city funeral home. London, UK: Penguin Books.
DiNitto, D. (2010). Social welfare politics and public policy. New York, NY: Pearson.
Morhaim, D. (2015). The failed war on drugs continues to amass casualties in Baltimore and beyond. Web.
Werb, D., Rowell, G., Guyatt, G., Kerr, T., & Montaner, J. (2011). Effect of drug law enforcement on drug market violence: A systematic review. International Journal of Drug Policy, 22(2), 87-94.