A newsmaker you should know: Abraham was 'The Bookie's Daughter'
August 22, 2013 9:00 AM
By Virginia Kopas Joe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Heather Abraham has no angst about sharing her charming -- and chilling -- memories of childhood.
The Georgia author set her celebrated first novel "The Bookie's Daughter" in Jeannette, her long-ago hometown. The memoir, darkly comedic, follows her first 19 years in the blue-collar city and reads like a carnival ride through a childhood dominated by "Big Al'' Abraham, the author's larger-than-life bookie father (indeed, he topped the scales at 600 pounds) and Bonnie, her trigger-happy, but unhappy mother.
Now the self-published book, released last year, is getting additional attention since Ms. Abraham has been named 2013 Georgia Author of the Year awards finalist under the category of "Memoirs/Autobiographies," as well as Next Generation Indie Book awards finalist for best independent nonfiction E-Book of 2013.
Ms. Abraham, 49, now lives in Atlanta and is working on a sequel with the working title "Disorganized Crimes." This one, too, will be published by SagisBooks.com, a firm started by her husband, Teo Sagisman.
And yes, the sequel is even more about the colorful Abraham family -- who ran a discount house called "Al's Bargain Store" with a secret back room for gambling and more -- although one wonders what could be left to say, scintillate or incriminate.
"The Bookie's Daughter" took us along as the author and her sister, Vanessa, enjoyed/endured a bizarre, almost unbelievable, childhood where gambling, police raids, trials, public scorn, hit men, shadowy government agents, IRA gunrunners, pedophiles, bodyguards and midnight runs for contraband were all in a day's work.
In one chapter Ms. Abraham recounts riding her plastic Batmobile to the rat-a-tat-tat from a shotgun as her parents argued and her mother aimed at her retreating husband.
Badda bing, badda boom -- the Sopranos meet the Adams Family.
Much less entertaining, however, is the fact the Abraham girls were left with emotional shrapnel from that time.
A March 31 book review in the Post-Gazette called the book a "frank, funny and lucid cautionary tale" that "in a just world would already be a movie."
No movie yet.
Ms. Abraham said the book "purged her fears and feelings" and was cathartic to her getting on with her life and achieving personal and professional success. But she also freely admits that if a child today was exposed to such shady elements, "the parents would be charged with something."
Still Ms. Abraham is brought to tears when she talks about Big Al and Bonnie.
"They could be funny, charming and well-meaning" -- even as they taught their grade-school age daughters to run numbers, unload illegal goods from back alleys in the middle of the night and hide in a secret basement room during police raids.
"It was just their way of life and in their own way, they were funny and loving," Ms. Abraham said while admitting she was among the "walking wounded'' for many adult years.
Still she calls the books "love letters to my parents" and the book is dedicated "To Big Al and Bonnie, I wish you peace at last."
Ms. Abraham said "Bookie" started out as a personal journal, which she read to her sister, who still lives in her hometown, and between sisterly sobs both realized that Heather "had a book."
It was the first time the two had ever "seriously talked about our the ordeal that was our childhood," Ms. Abraham insisted.
The actual writing took about 18 months.
The author notes that the book also catalogs the fortunes and misfortunes of her hometown, which once produced more than 70 percent of the world's glass in its fabled factories.
Indeed, the town is named after the wife of a pioneer glass industrialist, Jeannette McKee. Interestingly, the town's fortunes began to shatter from competition by foreign imports about the time Ms. Abraham was growing up.
The book recalls a dark time in the city's history when Big Al Abraham was a player -- some called him "the Canary" -- in a racketeering trial that riveted the nation. In 1971, the city's police chief and mayor, along with a local numbers boss, were indicted and later convicted.
Testifying as chief witness for the prosecution was none other than Big Al Abraham; he with four convictions for gambling on his own rap sheet.
Ms. Abraham recalls getting a package containing a dead canary, a blood-soaked note that said "DIE" and threatening phone calls during that time.
She was 8 years old and had a bodyguard.
Former Gov. Richard Thornburgh, who was U.S. District Attorney at the time of the trial, noted in "Where the Evidence Leads: An Autobiography" that the convictions were the first in the nation under the anti-corruption provision of the 1970 Organized Crime Control Act.
Still, despite dredging up that time and the vivid descriptions of her hometown's many missteps and characters (she changed most identities), the book's reception "remains overwhelmingly positive," Ms. Abraham said.
In fact, Ms. Abraham launched her book from a friend's house -- just blocks from Al's Bargain Center -- and was named grand marshal of Jeannette's summer parade last year.
After her chaotic childhood, Ms. Abraham held a variety of jobs and spent 13 years in night school to get a bachelor's degree, which she quickly followed up with a master's degree.
Both are in religious studies from Georgia State University, a subject she said she embraced while "looking for answers.''
She is now founder and editor of the e-magazine Religion Nerd, an academic site that talks about how religion affects culture and politics.
After its release, "Bookie's Daughter'' peaked to No. 1 on Amazon's "Top Rated in Biographies and Memoirs of Criminals.'' The 316-page softback sells for $15.99 on amazon.com. Kindle version is $9.99.