Thursday, 29 October 2009

Daddy was a number runner (Meriwether) 434

Another book that I was a little wary of reading was Meriwether's Daddy was a number runner. But my Dad is coming for tea tomorrow, so along with the fact that I had recently enjoyed another book that I felt intimidated by, I thought that was a good reason to get it out. And as with The wedding it paid off. What a wonderful and different book, again introducing me to a place and period of which I knew very little.

Set in Harlem in the 1930s it describes the devastation wrought on the community by the economic depression through the eyes of Francie, a 12 year old girl. Francie's father is a "number runner"; I hadn't heard of number running before this book so I looked it up. In the period, organized crime frequently ran lotteries. Run centrally, they relied on "number runners" to visit the pubs, bars, shops etc to take the people's "picks" or choices of numbers in. Her family is impoverished and much of the book describes their difficulties in living with very little money - living off credit at the grocer's shop, endless worry.

Through Francie we get a wonderful insight into how a 12 year old lived under these circumstances; she sells shopping bags to earn some extra cents which get spent on a hotdog and some strudels; she shares smutty magazines with a classmate in return for borrowing notes to copy for an assignment; she is beaten up by her best friend who also shares her sweets with her; she gains nickels in return for letting the baker grope her in the cinema. She dreams of a different life; she never intends to eat herrings when she is grown up ever again.

There are lots of interesting themes running through the book. One of the most interesting themes for me was the pride of the families and their reluctance to accept the "relief" offered by the government - not because the quality of the food given out was so poor (which it was) but because it meant having to admit to not being able to provide for one's family. It was particularly hard for Francie's father to accept this, and her mother kept quiet the fact that she literally had to beg for more relief after it had been suspended. This made interesting parallels with what I know about English poor relief and the pride of poor families outlined in books such as Round About A Pound A Week.

It's only once been published by Virago, and I think the above cover is truly amazing. It really sums up the all encompassing nature of Harlem for Francie.

Virago haven't published any of Meriwether's other works, but I looked her up and she has written a number of other novels, none unfortunately in my library authority. Definitely worth looking out for.


  1. I didn't know anything about this book (except that it was a VMC) and was put off my the title - I assumed it was about running! This sounds great; I love books set in or part of the Harlem Renaissance (a literary movement that Zora Neale Hurston who wrote VMC Their Eyes Were Watching God was a forerunner of). My local bookshop has a secondhand copy...

  2. Claire - you should definitely read this if you are interested in that period. I was quite nervous of the Hurston, but might be less so now that I have read this (although I recall from browsing through it that that involves quite a lot of dialect). Maybe you could get a copy from the library - but I do love this cover and think it is worthy of owning for that almost without the content.

  3. Yes, Hurston writes in Ebonics but I found it easy enough to immerse myself in after a few pages. The cover is lovely and I may buy this one at some point or, at least, borrow it from the library.

  4. African American Vernacular English. The term is an Amercanism that combines the words ebony and phonics also called Black English. Every day is a school day ;).

  5. I've never heard of this book, in spite of several classes as an undergraduate covering African American lit. This is shooting to the top of my library list!

    If you haven't already read it, Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is an amazing book that covers the white immigrant experience of being poor and proud (in yet another part of NYC, with yet another character named Francie). I've recently read "Round About a Pound a Week", and am still processing the differences between British and American poverty and welfare choices.

  6. Makedo - thank you so much for commenting and providing that suggestion - it sounds very intriguing. I will try to get it from the library.