Friday, January 09, 2009

Hey, Big Spender, Let's Dance!

Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher
5Q 3P; Audience: J/S (Grade 9+)

It's Chicago, 1941, and life is tough in the Yards. Money is hard to come by at the tail end of the Depression, especially if you're female and young. Ruby Jacinski's mother's rheumatoid arthritis is so bad, she can no longer work in the meat factory. Ruby has no choice but to drop out of school and get a job to support herself, her mother, and sister. She too goes to work in the hated meat factory, and she loathes every minute of the dull, smelly, bone-aching work. The only bright spot in her life is when she gets to dance. When Ruby hears music, her body wants to take off into it. When she dances, people stop to watch. That and her feisty personality bring her to the attention of Paulie Suelze, recently dishonorably discharged from the Army and a small-time hood on the rise. If her mother knew she'd talked to - kissed! - Paulie Suelze, Ruby's life wouldn't be worth a plugged nickel. But Paulie is exciting, dangerous, and handsome, and all three qualities are appealing to Ruby. Just as appealing to her is the new work he suggests for her. Why not earn money doing the thing she most enjoys doing? Why not teach dancing at the Starlight? Instead of $12 a week, she could earn $50. She could pay off their back rent and grocery tab, get her mother's wedding ring out of hock, and maybe even earn enough to get them out of the Yards and into a nice place. What's not to like about a job like that? As far as Ruby's concerned, this is a wonderful opportunity. But she knows that as far as her mother is concerned, Ruby's dancing with strange men for money is one step short of going to hell in a hand basket. It's just the first of many secrets she has to keep from her mother.

Ruby soon discovers that Paulie hasn't given her the full story either. She isn't a dance teacher. She's a taxi dancer. She dances with men who buy her time. And if she works it right, they'll buy her dinner, too. They'll take her out to night clubs. If she sets her line just right, these fish will show her a great time, and all it will cost her is a few dances and a few stepped-on toes. But Ruby is far more naive than she thinks, and before long, she's got herself caught up in a real mess, and the only person who can get her out of it is Paulie Suelze. Dangerous, charming Paulie, who makes her heart race. Dangerous, charming Paulie Suelze, who can't be trusted.


Everything in this book is sharply drawn, from the characters right down to the details that bring the early 1940's alive. Ruby is a multifaceted protagonist, and there's no attempt made to make her look particularly good. She makes plenty of mistakes, she's headstrong, cocksure, and unwilling to listen to good advice. She's a naif who thinks she knows it all, and it takes several knocks for her to even begin to realize that she doesn't. Ruby knows how to stand up for herself, but doesn't always know when to lie low. And she most certainly isn't a good judge of character. But Ruby is loving, loyal, and good-hearted, and she can look past her prejudices to value an individual. You get the sense at the end of the book that Ruby has grown a lot and is becoming not only a woman to be reckoned with, but a woman who has learned from her mistakes and is the wiser and better for it.

Atmosphere simply oozes out of this book. With talk of iceboxes, cold water flats, one bathroom shared by an entire apartment building, one telephone in the neighborhood, dancing at the corner drugstore, "black and tans", and the knowledge that everybody knows everybody's business, the 1940's come alive. Period detail extends to the casual use of derogatory terms and rampant racism and male-female relationships. Ruby is at first appalled at the idea that she has to dance with black and Filipino men and her fish (men she has on a string) insist that she does not. Her friendship with a trumpeter in the band has to be their secret, and going to jazz clubs where blacks and whites mingle is scandalous and dangerous. Women are subordinate to men and most just want a man to take care of them. A man beating a woman on a public street simply means that people walking by avert their heads and continue on their way. Premarital sex is wrong, and once you've had it, you know too much to ever be a carefree girl again. Fletcher effortlessly blends all of these elements into her novel, letting period detail enrich rather than overwhelm her story.

This is a book that adults will read with as much enjoyment as teens. Highly recommended.

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