Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ten Cents a Dance--Christine Fletcher

With her mother ill, it’s up to fifteen-year-old Ruby Jacinski to support her family. But in the 1940s, the only opportunities open to a Polish-American girl from Chicago’s poor Yards is a job in one of the meat packing plants. Through a chance meeting with a local tough, Ruby lands a job as a taxi dancer and soon becomes an expert in the art of “fishing”: working her patrons for meals, cash, clothes, even jewelry. Drawn ever deeper into the world of dance halls, jazz, and the mob, Ruby gradually realizes that the only one who can save her is herself.

I never lived during the 1940's and neither did Christine Fletcher, but after reading "Ten Cents a Dance" I'm almost convinced that we've been kicking around in Chicago together with Ruby Jacinski, 60 years ago. The music, the language, the smell of the meat-packing plants--it's all very real, in these pages.

Also real is the sense of hopelessness that comes with poverty, with the beginning of a war, and with being a young woman in a time of double standards, when marrying well was considered by many to be the best chance of success. Like the proverbial bull crashing through life's china shops (Well, smarter and far more feminine, of course, than the average bull), Ruby's next move is never predictable except in that it's likely to lead to disaster. But she'll never choose to give in--for Ruby, giving in means giving up on herself, on her family, and on ever leaving the Yards.

This makes the book sound very serious, and it is. But Ruby's plucky stubborness sets her firmly in the middle of near-impossible situations, and watching how she navigates her way out of them will bring frequent smiles and the occasional right-out-loud laugh or gasp of horror (she did what?!).

The only thing lacking is for the male characters to be fleshed out a bit more. Handsome bad-boy Paulie is a pretty straighforward character, carefully drawn so that the reader sees him for who he is despite Ruby's innocence. The more interesting men--Manny, a Filipino architect-turned-railroad-porter; Ozzie, an African-American trumpet player and composer--are both characters worthy of a book in their own right, but neither asserts his presence enough for the reader to get to know them fully here.

I wondered, as I read, how on earth this story could lead to an ending that wouldn't leave the reader disappointed: in Ruby, and in the book. But Fletcher comes through beautifully. Like a dish of sorbet after a heavy meal, the final chapter is just enough to give closure on Ruby's taxi-dancing misadventure, without overdoing it.

Coming in a week or so: An interview with "Ten Cents a Dance" author Christine Fletcher!


  1. omigod! i totally know what you mean about the ending!! perfecto!!! :D

    (thanks for visiting my blog!)

  2. I was consider reading this book for the Herding Cats Challenge. Now that I see a second person who really enjoyed it, I think I will, thanks.