Daddy Was a Number Runner, by Louise Meriwether
Another book set in Harlem in the first half of the twentieth century, this one at the time of the Great Depression. This novel was assigned reading from school and was a very welcome break from dense non-fiction assignments.
Francie Coffin, 11 or 12 at the beginning of the book, at first looks upon her surroundings with the wonder and playfulness of a child that only partially reflects the grim realities of her daily life, though her perceptions do change dramatically and quickly. Her father, as the title suggests, is a number runner–he collects money that is betted upon randomly drawn numbers in a sort of proto-lottery. No one ever wins much, but every once in a while someone wins just enough to give the rest of the community hope that they will be able to better their circumstances through the game, and perhaps even move out of Harlem. Until then, though, they’ve got to contend with poverty, racial discrimination, and the violence borne of desperation.
Francie’s mother, after bouts of argument, becomes a domestic worker and applies for relief despite her husband’s disapproval and feelings of emasculation in order to feed and clothe Francie and her two older brothers. But financial security is unattainable and, as the story progresses, so is familial security. Francie’s eldest brother becomes mixed up with a bad crowd and is arrested, along with the rest of his gang, for the mugging and murder of a white man. Sterling, her other brother, was supposed to be the first in the family to finish high school but, convinced that he would do better to begin working straightaway instead of struggling to become a professional in a time and society in which even white men had trouble finding jobs as janitors, drops out. Her father starts to follow his wandering eye. Francie herself does the best she can to help her family stay together while navigating early adolescence, even if it means tolerating the clumsy groping of merchants in exchange for an extra bread roll or soup bone. She is a courageous, lively girl who is a pleasure of a character to get to know.
Harlem in this period is populated by increasingly diverse groups of people: African American, Puerto Rican, Jewish, West Indian, and more, most of whom find it almost impossible to leave as the neighborhood becomes uncomfortably crowded and economic conditions worsen. Francie is fascinated by the different people she encounters, and through her eyes we see the complicated ways in which these multiple communities intermingle and become one. We also see, through Francie, the ways in which people come together under strenuous circumstances to support each other and give each other hope, even if it is so misplaced as in a game of randomly chosen numbers.
Though clearly geared for a high-school aged audience (which at first made this a bit of a surprising college assignment), this was a powerful, multi-layered coming-of-age tale about a particularly fascinating neighborhood and period of time which I greatly appreciated and heartily recommend.