Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Little Shadows

As the eldest of three girls, books about sisters are a natural draw for me. I'm always curious about how the relationships between women are portrayed in fiction anyway, but when it comes to sibling relationships I can't help but get pulled in. I'm lucky in that my sisters and I all get along quite well. Certainly we still fight sometimes, but when it comes right down to it, we know we're always going to be there for each other. Not everyone has this kind of relationship, and I try not to take it for granted. Instead, I scour literature for other good examples of sisterhood (in the familial sense) and hold them up for myself. Little Women, is a classic example, but the sisters portrayed in Marina Endicott's new novel The Little Shadows are more dynamic and less overwhelmingly good than Louisa May Alcott's girls, which makes the Avery sisters that much more fun to read about.

The novel begins with the Avery sisters – (oldest to youngest) Aurora, Clover, and Bella – and their mother auditioning for their first show. It's the early 1900s and the girls, who have lost their father and brother, are trying to make it in vaudeville. They're desperately poor and not have very little performing experience, but their mother Flora used to be in vaudeville, so she has trained them up enough to audition. Not that they're having any success with it. They're pretty girls, though, and that combined with their ability to hold a note lands them their first gig, opening the show in Fort MacLeod. Not only does Endicott take us through the sisters' act, though, but she presents the whole vaudeville scene: backstage, on stage, and what happens in the wings and on the stairs. Just like the girls, we see everything with fresh eyes, and those small details you miss when you're a seasoned performer still pop to their attention. After the first night, though, they get taken off the bill.

So begins a novel steeped in vaudeville, the artistic variety shows of the turn of the century. By the time the Avery sisters (who perform as The Belle Auroras) arrive on the scene, though, the style has changed from bawdy to polite, allowing them to sing classic songs about love and loss. After the disappointment in Fort MacLeod, the band leader suggests they head south to Montana where he knows a guy who owes him a favour. Money is tight and the girls don't have much choice, so off they go. Luckily, in Montana they find the theatre is run by Gentry Fox, a man who knew Flora in her vaudeville days. After grumbling, he agrees to take the girls on for free and give them lessons in the mornings. 

It's a humble beginning, but it allows the girls to meet an incredible assortment of vaudeville performers (who are overwhelmingly men). The girls are sweet, though, and become favourites of the various performers who keep on an eye on them in the theatre and later, when they start touring. The gender (and age) divide in the theatre leads to a number of conflicts and Flora's constant fear one of her daughters will be set upon or taken advantage of. Endicott doesn't shy away from talking about sex or desire, or the fact that neither are necessarily what you thought they'd be. Both Aurora and Bella are in harm's way at least once (in Bella's case, with help from the friendly comedy duo East & Verrall), and Endicott doesn't flinch when scenes get uncomfortable.

As the girls' repertoire and skill increases, they begin to be paid (and eventually paid very well). In an effort to help secure her family, Aurora marries a vaudeville producer 30 years older than she is, and he takes the family all over Western Canada before leaving them rather in the lurch when his Edmonton theatre literally collapses. A few months later, Aurora discovers she's pregnant. Both Bella and Clover have their own romances (and Aurora too, for that matter), but they unfold more slowly, so I won't try to detail them (or their further adventures) here. Really, if I don't stop I could go on writing about this book for pages and pages, because there are so many integral little side-plots and relationships.

The book is split up like a stage production, with an overture followed by acts, an intermission, more acts, and an encore. Within each of these sections are chapters, which are further broken down into small sections. For the most part, each of these smaller sections is told from the perspective of a different sister, which sometimes allows you to experience a certain moment from multiple perspectives, as well as get to know the various supporting cast from different points of view. The varying narrative tones also mean you get to spend time with each of the sisters' thoughts, and see how they view themselves and their various situations. 

Reading The Little Shadows is a breathtaking experience. Like a champion vaudevillian, Endicott pulls at a range of emotions and can take you from heart-stricken worry to laughter in a matter of paragraphs.  Vaudeville was not a world I knew anything about before reading this book, but Endicott makes me wish I could go back in time so I could sit in the theatre and watch one of these shows unfold. But then, perhaps I have – The Little Shadows is rather like vaudeville on the page, and just as the audiences would often return to see the same show more than once, reading it just makes you want to read more.

The Little Shadows
by Marina Endicott
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from Doubleday Canada edition)


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