Friday, August 8, 2008

Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher

Ruby is an ordinary 15 year old school girl from a respectable family in the 1940s. But then her father dies, her mother’s arthritis gets too painful to keep working and Ruby has to quit school to work in one of the meat-packing factories to support herself, her mother and her younger sister. Not that it supports them very well – she makes barely enough to feed them and their debts are piling up. Then she meets Paulie. A local boy with a bad reputation who tells her about another way to make money. Soon she’s swept up into a romance with Paulie and working as a taxi-dancer at a local club.

A taxi-dancer you say? Taxi-dancers worked at clubs where men would buy 10 cent dance tickets and purchase dances with the ladies that worked there. The woman would get 5 cents for each dance plus tips if she was lucky. What the job lacked in societal respect it more than made up for in money. Because the job was not considered respectable many women lied about their profession so that they could keep the esteem of their families and friends. Taxi-dancers were not prostitutes, but they did provide an “illusion” of intimacy and love so that they could earn more money.

Ruby is poor and forced to make hard and difficult choices. She doesn’t necessarily make the right decisions, but when she makes a decision she owns it. She deals with the repercussions and grows and develops as a character in ways that are completely believable. Christine Fletcher has done what is so difficult to do in a historical fiction – create a character that could actually have existed in the time period she is writing about (thankfully Ruby does not suffer from overly spunky convention breaking syndrome).

Fletcher is also able to describe the casual racism that was common during that time period. Taxi-dance halls were one of the only places Asian men could mix freely with white women. They could buy tickets just like the white men, although that didn’t guarantee them a dance, many taxi-dancers would simply pretend not to see them. There were also after hour clubs called Black and Tans where African American, whites, and Asians would gather to enjoy jazz, swing and other types of music. Ruby stars off rather horrified at the casual mixing of races and then slowly opens her mind as she gets to know people of other ethnic backgrounds. I thought that the race issue was handled very deftly and helped to show what the prevailing thoughts of the time period were.

Readers will be drawn into Ruby’s story from the first page. They will see Ruby develop from a naïve and innocent school girl into a savvy streetwise woman. The taxi-dance clubs, as well as the women who worked there make for a compulsively readable book about an era that readers likely won't know anything about. I can’t recommend it enough.

Just as an added note – Christine Fletcher has a fascinating author note where she explains how a great-aunt’s life inspired the story. Absolutely amazing. And she also has a great wealth of information about taxi-dancers on her website.

Other reviews:
Yayaya’s (Who have also compiled a slew of links.)

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