A few days ago I finished reading Daddy was a number runner by Louise Meriwether (Virago Press, 1997). Originally published in 1970, it is set in Harlem, New York, sometime in the 1930s (political speakers on soapboxes talk about Mussolini, and towards the end of the book, a boxing match is won by Joe Louis, the ‘brown bomber’). The novel is narrated by 12 year-old Francie Coffin. She has the same concerns as girls on the cusp of puberty everywhere – school, family, friends – but these are embedded in material poverty, sexual danger and racial inequality, all narrated in the matter-of-fact tone of a girl who knows this life is hard, but doesn’t know it any other way. There is the ongoing indignity of going on welfare relief, inflicted by a character nicknamed ‘Madame Queen’, who sets almost impossible pre-requisites before Francie’s family can receive the most minimal help, including a virtually inedible foodstuff known to everyone as ‘gold-can jive’. Basic errands to the butcher or baker are fraught as they try to grope her each time; men stick their hands up her skirt at the cinema. One brother is doing well at school, but there is little chance that there would be money for college and he leaves to work at an undertaker; another brother is wrongfully arrested for murder. The 16 year old boy next door is arrested for the same murder and faces execution. The police are shown to be heavy-handed, provocative and unnecessarily violent. At least two riots occur during the narrative time-frame. Sobering reading (to say the least) at anytime, even more so reading it in the aftermath of Ferguson. There’s little redemption by the end of the novel. Francie turns 13, but is less hopeful than she was at the beginning of the book.
All this makes it sound like a book of unremitting misery that no-one would want to read but Francie is an engaging narrator; her youth and unsentimental tone gives the storytelling a lightness of touch, and we care what happens to her, and to her family and neighbours. There are moments of joy and music. When their number comes up (in the number-running lottery of the title), there is piano-playing and singing, food and new clothes, even if only for a short time. When boxer Joe Louis wins his match, people run out into the streets in communal celebration. It’s a New York novel told from the inside, high up on Fifth Avenue, a world away from the iconic view of the Empire State Building, which Francie can see from her fire-escape stairs. If you’re interested in New York, in Black America, or women’s writing, this is a book to read, learn from and enjoy. My copy was bought second-hand – it seems to be out of print in the UK, which is a real shame, but second-hand copies are probably easy to source via online booksellers.