In this beautifully crafted piece of historical fiction, fifteen-year-old Ruby is forced to quit school and work to support her family after her father’s death when her mother is no longer able to do so. She doesn’t have any skills that will help her (she never took typing or shorthand in school), so she takes a job at a meatpacking plant. It’s harsh work, but there are few options for a girl in Chicago in the early 1940s, and she doesn’t see a way out.
All that changes after Paulie Suelze, neighborhood legend and a boy her mother would die to see her with, is impressed with her dancing and directs her to the Starlight Dance Academy. There, Ruby can get paid for dancing all night, as long as her mother never finds out (her cover story is that she’s found work as a telephone operator). Despite what its name suggests, Starlight is a taxi dance hall, where girls like Ruby (taxi dancers) are paid ten cents a dance, and sometimes more for extracurricular activities with the men, which range from casual conversation over dinner to, well, you know.
Soon, Ruby is deep into the world of nighttime Chicago–the music, the clubs, the dancing, the drinking, the gambling–and having trouble reconciling who she’s forced to become with the innocent girl she used to be.
Ten Cents A Dance is gorgeous. The setting comes vividly to life, and I do mean vividly. I felt immersed in Ruby’s world, and 1940s Chicago is certainly a fascinating place to be. I do love a nice setting, and, wow, I honestly can’t think of a better book in terms of the very real sense of time and place and the culture and language that come with it (I loved the 1940s slang!). I can’t even describe how well Christine Fletcher pulled this off–for those words, you’ll need to read the book itself.
It’s not just the setting, though. The characters are very real, and their relationships rung true as well. Ruby is a wonderful heroine, and her character develops nicely over the course of the story. She comes out a different person at the end of it all, in some ways, as would anyone, but she’s still Ruby–just the way it should be. Very believable. Ruby is strong and spirited and I can’t imagine not loving her. Even the minor chracters were well-drawn, and I was quite intrigued by some of them (I’d love to look deeper into the life of Ozzie, who plays in the band at the Starlight, for example).
Ruby’s voice is authentic and a pleasure to read. Christine Fletcher is brilliant in her use of language, and she chose an excellent story to apply it to. I’d never heard of taxi dance halls before, but suffice to say I am plenty interested now and have been doing a bit of my own internet research on them and the culture of the time. I was completely hooked by this story, and not just the story, but also, almost independently, its setting.
Ruby’s visits to the black-and-tans (the clubs where all races are welcomed) also provide an interesting window into another aspect of this time and place. It’s certainly not any kind of an issue book, but I did enjoy the insight into the race relations of the time. I enjoyed all insights into the time and place, honestly. As much as all aspects of this book stand out, it’s the setting and Christine Fletcher’s vivid portrayal of it that really pushes it to over-the-top amazingly brilliant.
I adored the author’s previous book, Tallulah Falls, and expected this one to be amazing as well, and it was even better. They’re very different books, too, and I love Christine Fletcher’s versatility; I can’t wait to see what she writes in the future. She’s an incredibly talented author, and you will be far from sorry for picking up this book.
In six words: 1940s Chicago, great characters, absolutely brilliant.