Sunday, December 27, 2015

Coming of age in the footlights (Books - The Little Shadows - by Marina Endicott)

Award-winning Canadian novelist Marina Endicott is not widely known in the U.S., but she deserves to be. Her The Little Shadows (Doubleday Canada, 2011) is an entertaining, coming-of-age saga of three sisters, Aurora, Clover, and Bella, working for their supper on the vaudeville circuit circa 1912 with their widowed mother.  Aside from simply being a good story, there were three things I particularly enjoyed about The Little Shadows.

This is a coming-of-age story about women rather than men, which is still a literary rarity.  When it begins, the emphasis is on the sisters' act, how they function as one, as their survival depends upon its success.  But as they mature, they become individuals as artists and women.  The joy of the plot is tracing the development of their characters and how their talents shape them to be the women they become.

Endicott has an obvious love for the setting, and all things theatrical: 
In the enfolding darkness of the wings, Aurora reaches out her hand on one side to find Clover's thin one; on the other Bella's,  small and strong.  Their warm clasp stills her trembling.

Silver-shelled footlights snap a scalloped arc of light onto the main curtain.  Fresh red velvet: crimson lake, bright blood, the colour of love.  Murmurs cease as the violins come creaking into tune, their mild excitable cacophony resolving into sense and meaning, into A, the one note they all seek.  In the audience, silence falls. The cessation of visiting, the folding of programmes, the last adjustment to the seats. 
and for the people in it:
Stuck at the top of the basement steps, Clover waited while Julius Foster Konigsburg climbed up painfully, stopping from time to time to crack,a deep, throat-adjusting cough.

As he climbed she went to the props man's area to fetch him a paper cup of water from the jug kept there.  When he reached the landing, Julius took the cup and drained it down before attempting the flight of steps up to the stage.

'Just a snatch of water, thank you - a paper cup - like drinking from a letter.'  He coughed hugely again. 'Well, I'm off.  All new material, naturally, stolen from the greatest modern masters.  If I use anything of yours, dear miss, I will pay you five cents.'
 'Like drinking from a letter.' Self delusion is a talent for the stage, even if it is a liability in everyday life, although in some situations we all resort to imagination to survive. This is the theme of Endicott's novel, in a nutshell.  Working in the theatre myself, I recognize in this novel the behavioral tropes, the 'types' you still see in every company of performers and admired the love with which Endicott rendered them and the knowledgeable way she fashioned characters who exist between the poles of magic-inspiration-emotion and technique-structure-sheer sweat. The lyrical tone with which she infused her narrative voice, felt as though it could easily transfer to voice-over:
Bella thought Camrose was no kind of a town.  A little spot on the blank earth, two streets, dirt blown bare of snow.  Still, a certain lightness of heart came with being nomads again.
Finally, Endicott uses the songs, dances, routines - the artifice of vaudeville - to structure and season her story in a clever way.  Short chapters are preceded by titles - King of Whiskeys, Her Beaux Yeux - like cards on easels introducing the next song or sketch in a the lineup.  Each larger section of chapters offers instruction from memoirs or manuals of vaudeville performers.  One, How to Enter Vaudeville, advises
Practice alone before a mirror, then before on or two of your friends and ask them to tell you of any faults they see in your work.
When Clover loses the butterfly wings that served as the costume for one of her acts, she finds herself missing the grace those wings afforded her in everyday life.  When Bella's beau creates an act titled Man in the Moon, Clover finds herself reflecting that
...all their loves were on the moon, in one way or another.
In The Little Shadows Endicott fashions a tale in which life and the stage intertwine, where even the hardships faced in life are warmly tinged, as though lit by stage lights.

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