Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Review: Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher

My first book of 2009! That I read several days ago...I do my blogging in spurts. I'll spend a couple of days reading and working, and then use my days off to catch up on all of my blogging. Not the most sustainable method of blogging, but it's what I've got.

Ten Cents a Dance is a heartbreaking and in some ways terrifying story of a teenaged taxi dancer during WWII. Ruby Jacinski has lived her whole life in Chicago's Back of the Yards. After her single mother is no longer able to work in the physically demanding meat packing plant, Ruby quits school and takes up at the plant in her mother's place. She works in the least glamorous place imaginable - packing jars of pickled pigs feet (bleck!).

Whenever she can convince her mother to let her out of the house, however, Ruby loves to go with her best friend from the neighborhood to dance halls. Ruby is an excellent dancer, and her moves, good looks and spunk attract the attention of one of the neighborhood's bad boys, Paulie Suelze, who suggests she start working at the Starlight Dance Academy, where she could pull down as much as $50 a week. Compared to her $12 a week salary at the meat packing plant, Ruby jumps at the chance.

Of course, the Starlight Dance Academy isn't the sort of place Ruby's mother wants her working, even before Ruby realizes how seedy the joint is (she originally believes it's a very elegant and respectable establishment), and so begins Ruby's balancing act. She must keep her mother and younger sister believing that she's a telephone switchboard operator. As a dancer at the club, she has to balance the needs and desires of a diverse client base in order to keep raking in the generous tips and free after work meals that pad her regular pay check. On the one hand she has an extremely generous but rather straight-laced and racist benefactor, and on the other she and a friend have been entertaining a pair of Filipino gentlemen who may not have the most money but can dance and enjoy going to hopping jazz joints. There are the other women at the Starlight who are all vying for the same pool of men in order to keep earning money. And then there's Paulie, who starts dating Ruby behind her mother's back (another secret she has to keep from her family), who doesn't seem to care about what Ruby does at work, but is increasing the pressure on her to be "sweet" to him in the backseat of his car.

In short, it's a tangled web that Ruby falls into. She fights racism, attempted rape, pressure for sex, family loyalty, balancing work and home life, having a socially unacceptable job - and all of this against the background of the beginning of World War II and Chicago's ethnically divided neighborhoods.

There was a lot going on in this book (just look at all the tags this one fits under), but Fletcher handled all of it wonderfully, in part because she didn't try to give everything equal significance. For example, a lot of the racism happened on the periphery or in the background, as there were some jazz clubs that Ruby and her Filipino date couldn't get into because of his ethnicity, and a lot of the women at the Starlight carelessly threw around racial slurs when referring to the different types of men who might patron the establishment (the worst of it happens after Pearl Harbor).

At some points, Ruby is painfully naive, but it added to the weight and the heartbreak of the story, especially because Ruby tries so hard to be tough and worldly.

The author's note at the end of the book gives some fascinating insight into the creation of the book, from Fletcher's inspiration to the extensive research she put into the book (she really wanted to know exactly where all of the various ethnic neighborhoods were and what people of different groups thought of each other).
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