Rating: 4 of 5
Author: Betty Wilson
Available: Paperback, Kindle
Melba Farris is a long way from Ohio where she grew up. Living in New York City in the late 1970s, she applies for a position managing the cities’ public housing units in Central Harlem. Given little to no training and without much supervision, she’s suddenly responsible for managing numerous buildings and tenants. Managers with drinking problems, building supers who meticulously sweep their streets, pistol packing tenants, crazy directives from the “suits” downtown, and touching stories of love and loss are part of Melba’s everyday life. Giving her all to her job, tenants, and buildings provides a sense of purpose and escape for Melba who, at home, is a victim of spousal abuse.
Though Betty Wilson’s Mr. Jefferson’s Piano is written as a fictional memoir, it is clear from the depth and detail of the 68 short stories that Ms. Wilson has leveraged her twenty years of experience as a New York City property manager. Similar to her novel’s heroine, Wilson herself was a Sloan Award winner for her public service. This is a uniquely written novel as it isn’t necessarily just a memoir. Wilson has added work memo’s, notes to file, and letters collected by her fictional character over the years and integrates them throughout Melba’s recounting of various experiences she’s had on the job. This adds such a sense of realism it’s hard to believe this is a fictional account.
One of the reasons I enjoyed this novel was the way Wilson has different characters come in and out of Melba’s life. Like Melba, we only see a glimpse of their lives without knowing necessarily how each of their stories resolve. This reminded me of what drew me to the first season of the television show ER where patients would come in and out of the emergency room and one never knew exactly how their stories resolved – just like in real life. Also, similar to an ER physician, Melba must cope with the frequent tragic lives she encounters on a daily basis. As a result, she occasionally comes off a little dispassionate. For those concerned they may be left frustrated by this method of story telling, Farris does close a number of these open arcs at the books conclusion.
Some stories are shocking, for example the drug user who has clogged his toilet with numerous needles requiring him to use his bathtub for collecting human waste. Others stories are touching, such as the one recounting the history of Mr. Jefferson’s Piano. After reading this novel, I have new found respect for the difficult, dangerous, yet rewarding social work undertaken by city property managers.