Review: Daddy Was A Number Runner

12May14

This hard-hitting piece of fiction is not a fun or an easy read, but it’s an important one. Especially if you’re in the position of being able to walk away from the ugliness, unlike Francie, the protagonist.

Photo hosted at Open Library - click through to learn about borrowing options.

Photo hosted at Open Library – click through to learn about borrowing options.

 

Francie Coffin  is a pre-teen living in Harlem during the worst of the Great Depression. Her father hasn’t been able to find a job, but refuses to accept welfare–known back then as “relief”–because he feels it’s a man’s responsibility to provide for his family. He wont’ let Francie’s mother work, either, so the family (which also includes Francie’s two brothers) survives on Mr. Coffin’s sporadic earnings, which include playing piano at parties, and, as the title indicates, working for an illegal lottery as a number runner.

This is, quite possibly, the bleakest novel I’ve ever read, and considering what the challenge list has brought so far this year, that’s saying something. Trigger warning: the book is rife with child sexual assault, which Francie and her friends seem to accept as “just the way things are” in their world. School is mostly a joke – Francie’s very bright, and loves to read, but the teachers are easily intimidated by gang girls into letting the class read magazines all day, so she’s not learning much of anything. Food is scarce. And when Francie’s mom finally goes against her husband’s wishes to get a) welfare, and b) a part-time job, things still don’t improve, mostly thanks to the relief worker the Coffins nickname “Miss Queenie.” Miss Queenie is forever looking for reasons to kick the Coffins off welfare, which leads to a lot of lying and deception on everybody’s part. It’s a hot mess, for certain.

And yet, it’s really important to understand the difficulties of the time period, especially since so many of them are uncomfortably resonant even now. Reading this in context with a lot of the non-fiction works on the list demonstrates how a good story well-told can bring facts to life in a different way. Francie and her neighbors aren’t bad people – they’re doing the best they can with what they have to work with – but every time they try to pull themselves up, they get smacked right back down. It’s frustrating to read it, but I bet it’s even more frustrating to live it.  Other themes that appear are gangs, prostitution, complicated female friendships, and the progressive black politics of the time, including the beliefs/work of Marcus and Amy Garvey. Finally, subplots involving Francie’s two brothers–boys who, despite their good qualities, are slowly but surely sucked into gang life–show that perils and pitfalls that lurk for young black men as well as their sisters.

Much like in real life, the end of the novel does not offer much hope. “Shit,” Francie says helplessly, as she and her friends sit on the stoop and look over their neighborhood. It’s the first time in the novel we hear her curse, and it’s meaningful because up to this point Francie has been a good girl, the best girl she can be under the circumstances. But when you’re surrounded by shit, eventually, you too are going to start to stink, whether you want to or not.

Will you enjoy reading this book? Most likely not. Should you do it anyway? If you’re open to having your mind blown and your heart broken, go ahead. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. This novel is a wake-up call about the racial dynamics of the Depression, and social patterns of injustice that persist to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

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