Background: After I reviewed Christine Fletcher's Tallulah Falls, several people told me that I really should read Ten Cents a Dance, because it's even better. Christine (who I met at the most recent Kidlitosphere Conference) was then kind enough to send me a copy. Then Ten Cents a Dance was shortlisted for the Cybils award in young adult fiction, and I moved it to the top of my list. And I was not disappointed.
Review: Ten Cents a Dance is set in Chicago in the early 1940s. Fifteen-year-old Ruby Jacinski has dropped out of school to support her family by working in a meat-packing plant. Her father is dead, and her mother is crippled by arthritis, leaving Ruby the family's sole breadwinner. She hates and is ashamed of the backbreaking work, and aches from her family's grinding poverty. When gangster wannabee Paulie Suelze suggests that Ruby can make four times as much money working in a dance hall, where lonely men pay ten cents for each dance with a good-looking young woman, Ruby is unable to resist. She lies to her mother, and begins living a double-life as both dutiful daughter and glamorous taxi-dancer. Along the way, Ruby makes mistakes, learns about people, and falls in love with jazz. She also falls for bad boy Paulie, making her life much more complicated.
Ruby's voice is spot-on. Even when she's making what are clearly poor choices, even when she's getting in over her head, her underlying values come through. She's a basically good girl put into a questionable situation, and you can understand how things might go either way for her.
Ten Cents a Dance provides a window into a world that I didn't know existed. The thing that stands out to me the most about this book is Christine Fletcher's flair for description, for making a setting come to life. The reader can see, hear, smell, and taste Ruby's crowded Chicago tenement, the grim meat-packing plant, the tawdry dance hall, and the smoky late-night jazz clubs. Here are a few examples:
"I'd been there only a month and already I felt a hundred years old. Just another packinghouse worker in a bloody, soaking apron; fingernails soft and cracking from the brine; and a smell I couldn't get out of my skin. Eight hours a day in a stinking gray room with a bunch of ladies older than Ma, listening to them complain about their bunions and hammertoes and changes of life." (Page 4)
"I felt like I had eyes all over my skin, taking in everything. The blue tablecloths and battered tin ashtrays. The rippling waves of the men's hair, combed straight back and gleaming. The men in zoot suites--I didn't know the name for them, I asked Manny later--sharkskin gray, kelly green, royal blue, each with broad shoulders and nipped-in waists, coats and silver watch chains hanging almost to their baggy knees.
A trumpet blare caught my ear, a ratta-tat-tat solo so catchy my feet started jitterbugging under the table." (Page 127)
The smells in Chester's house were different. No hot metal of coal stove, no naptha soap. No smoke plumes rising in the air outside, and instead of a dead animal and incinerator reek from the packinghouses, when the wind was right we could smell Oreos baking at the Nabisco factory nearby. No packinghouse whistles, no trains rumbling past at all hours. We couldn't even hear the streetcar. The strangeness made me feel unsettled." (Page 247)
Isn't that simply gorgeous prose? But this book does a lot more than just show readers a setting and a bunch of historical details. Ten Cents a Dance looks at issues like what people who are desperate to survive will and won't do, the capacity for self-delusion, and the way that stereotyped views of other races can evolve once you actually get to know people. There's also quite a bit about what it was like for ordinary citizens during the start of World War II, something I've seen addressed much more frequently in books set in England than in books set in the US.
The characterization in Ten Cents a Dance is also multi-layered and detailed, though I hesitate to go into too much detail for fear of spoilers. I especially loved Chester (though I won't tell you who he is).
I do have to comment specifically on the character of Paulie, however. I can't resist. This paragraph is a little bit of a spoiler, so feel free to skip it if you haven't read the book yet. I imagine that it's quite difficult to write a first-person novel in which the reader can see something that the narrator herself misses. Fletcher certainly pulls this off here, perhaps even a bit too well. I had trouble getting over the fact that Ruby believed in Paulie, when he was so clearly, from the night that they first met, bad news. I just didn't see that he had enough appeal to overcome his flaws. But perhaps that's my adult viewpoint talking. I would be interested to know how teens react to the character. I will say that my negative feelings about Paulie added to the tension of the book ... kind of a waiting for the other shoe to drop sort of thing.
OK, spoilers finished. Ten Cents a Dance has it all. An engaging teen heroine with believable flaws, surrounded by a host of other multi-dimensional characters. A unique historical backdrop. Gorgeous, sensory-input-filled prose. Plenty of conflict. A plot that kept me turning the pages, and for which the eventual ending wasn't clear ahead of time. Highly recommended for teens and adults, especially for fans of historical fiction. I'll be keeping an eye out for Christine Fletcher's books in the future.
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
Publication Date: April 1, 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the author
Other Blog Reviews: Grow Wings, Review X, Bookshelves of Doom, Becky's Book Reviews, Teen Book Review, Abby (the) Librarian, The YA YA YAs, and many more.
Author Interviews: Worducopia
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.