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.