Monday, August 31, 2009

Dance Night

Dawn Powell's 1930 novel Dance Night has me thinking about what it would be like to live in a small town with very little education, very few job opportunities, and only vague ideas about what life is like in other places. The characters in the novel go to the movies regularly, but other than that, the chief source of information they have about the world outside their town comes from traveling salespeople and a dancing master, and the reach of these people is very small. The people who travel the farthest and would therefore have the most information are also the book's most despicable characters. So everyone else is left with vague dreams and a strong pull to stay right where they are, doing the things their parents did.

Dance Night tells the story of Morry Abbott, a young man who is trying to figure out what he wants to make of his life. He lives with his mother behind the millinery shop she owns where he feels increasingly uncomfortable with the overwhelming femininity of the place. He is trying to find his way into the masculine worlds of the factory and the bar, but his youth and inexperience leave him uncertain and embarrassed. The novel also tells the story of Jen, a 14-year-old who has been abandoned by her mother and taken in by a local family. She feels isolated and alone and misses her younger sister, left behind in an orphanage. She turns to Morry for some companionship, and he is drawn to her, attracted by her hero-worship, but also repelled by her obvious neediness.

What has stayed with me about the book is all the unhappiness and the longing and the misunderstandings that haunt just about every character. Morry doesn't know what to make of the young women who surround him who make fun of him but also, very confusingly, flirt with him. Morry's mother is married to a man who is hardly ever home, but who makes her life miserable when he is. She is also desperately in love with the dancing master, who is hardly aware of her presence. The mother's friend is having an affair. Her assistant torments Morry but also wants to be seen with him. The most important man about town, the one with all the money and property, moves through a series of superficial relationships. No one, it seems, is content, and nobody has much of an idea of what to do about it.

The townspeople do have one outlet -- their weekly dance night, which begins with a dancing lesson, followed by the dance itself. Everyone, from old to young, looks forward to these evenings as a time to bring some lightness into their lives, but enjoyable as they are, they are also scenes of sexual competition and jealousy.

And there is also the problem of work. Morry gets a job in the factory and feels proud of himself for a while, but before too long he sees how builders are developing the town, has his own ideas of what kind of houses the town needs, and joins forces with a local architect to try to make his dream houses a reality. He becomes a big man about town himself, making plans and talking them up to the townspeople, shuttling about from person to person trying to make things happen. All this is immensely satisfying for a while, but it's also precarious and uncertain, and for all Morry knows, it could collapse on him.

Morry senses that his world is changing and that there are opportunities out there -- opportunities that could transform his life, if only he could get a proper hold on them. It's a place where hard work and industry and vision can take him places, but he just can't quite seem to make things work for him. His friend Jen is also full of dreams; she wants to sing and dance on stage and to live a busy and exciting life in some big city. But the problem, again, is how to make it happen. How can these people escape?

The picture Powell paints of a small town in changing and uncertain times is a grim one, but the portrait seems so real and the characters are so compelling that the book is a fascinating read. It makes me very glad I'm fortunate enough to live in an entirely place and time. Of course, we have our own uncertain times to deal with, but I think for a lot of people, it's become easier to imagine a way out of claustrophic small towns.

Dance Night by Dawn Powell

I have a picture in my mind of what Depression era America must have been like, no doubt aided by Dorothea Lange's famous documentary photographs of the period. Dusty dry towns awash in shades of brown, people with little money and few opportunities. If Dorothea Lange has given me the visuals, then Dawn Powell has given me the words. Dance Night's Lamptown, Ohio is as drab and dreary as any town that Lange may have photographed, and Powell has captured the small town claustrophobia of it in the days just before the Depression.

"But Lamptown! All railroad tracks and factory warehouses and for a
park nothing but clover fields with big signs every few yards."

"Rows of gray frame factory boarding houses on dusty roads in the east
and to the west the narrow noisy Market Street--choose your home between these
two sections."

Lamptown isn't so much a place to settle down in as a place to get out of, and most of the characters in Dance Night dream of bigger and more exciting lives elsewhere (elsewhere usually being NYC) but are caught in their tiny, oppressive lives with little chance of anything more than dreams. Dance Night centers around Morry Abbott, a young man on the cusp of adulthood who lives with his mother, Elsinore, above the Bon Ton Hat Shop that she owns. Morry's father Charles is mostly absent, which is actually a blessing in disguise as he's resentful of his son and jealous of perceived indiscretions of Elsinore. If thoughts are sins, she might be guilty, but he's mostly off the mark. He spends most of the year on the road as a traveling candy salesman, which is an ironic job for a man as disagreeable as he is. Postcards with the message "the candy man will visit you on..." mark his impending visits and are dreaded by both mother and son.

Morry spends much of his time alone in his room reading adventure stories or across the way with Jen St. Clair, an orphan, who's been adopted by the Delaneys, less for altruistic reasons than as an extra pair of hands to help with the housework. Mrs. Delaney's son runs the local bar and billiard room. Several years younger than Morry, Jen looks up to and admires him and eventually will fall in love with him. Time and again, however, Morry is run off by Mrs. Delaney who thinks of him as a good for nothing only out to ruin a nice, young girl, which in turn makes Morry angry with Jen. It's Jen's optimism and their mutual wish to escape that always brings him back. Her plans are always grand and she seems set to achieve them, the first being to get her younger sister out of the same orphanage from which she was adopted.

Morry is a senstive youth who feels a closeness to his mother that isn't always reciprocated. Elsinore has her own problems that she's always wrapped up in and will often gaze past her son as if he's not even there. He's not like other young men in Lamptown and often his intentions are misunderstood. He has ambitions, but it's always through the impetus of others that he's spurred in to action--from getting a job at one of the local factories to romantic liaisons. His dreams are always bigger and more accessible when they can be bounced off Jen, who always murmurs appreciation for them. He becomes more significant in not only her eyes but his own. Their romantic fumblings come to little yet he's unhappy when other men show her attention. They have a complicated relationship, but their lives are intertwined almost without each realizing how much.

Dance night refers to the weekly Thursday night dances held at the Casino Dance Hall complete with orchestra and handsome dance instructor who goes from town to town leading the dancers and giving lessons. It's the week's highlight for the town's residents who have little else in the way of entertainment. Things are beginning to boom for the little town of Lamptown, a town built around the railroad and filled with factories that employ most of the population. As outsiders come in to invest in the factories and in real estate, Morry becomes involved with a local architect. His grand plan involves building luxury homes for the wealthy who will settle in Lamptown and turn it into a first class town, but outside investors seem content to put up cheap, slapdash housing each one like the next, because 'that's what people want'. When the architect sells out to the outside investors, Morry is crushed and realizes finally it's time to move on.

Dawn Powell's story is gritty and doleful yet never totally despairing, and it ends on what I felt was a note of optimism. The story is told in a series of vignettes, but it still progresses in a brisk pace with fully fleshed out characters who aren't in the least perfect, and full of foibles, at times annoying, yet are complex in their makeup and in their interactions with each other. Even the secondary characters are rounded and interesting--Nettie, who works in the Bon Ton Hat Shop and is meddlesome and nosy but always prim and proper otherwise. Or Mrs. Pepper the corsetiere who's involved in a clandestine affair with the dance instructor, a married man, whom she can't live without. Each character has their dreams and desires but you doubt they will ever make much of them.

I think Dawn Powell was a talented writer, and some of my favorite passages are filled with wonderful imagery of the trains passing through to more appealing destinations fueling Morry and Jen's desires to get out.

"Morry and Jen looked quickly at each other--this was the thing that always
bound them--trains hunting out unknown cities, convincing proof of
adventure far off, of destiny somewhere waiting, of things beyond

Dawn Powell got out of Ohio and found adventure elsewhere. I like to think Morry and Jen did, too.

Cross posted at A Work in Progress

Friday, August 28, 2009

Reading Reminder!

Just a little reminder that the Slaves will be discussing Dawn Powell's Dance Night on Monday August 31. Feel free to post your thoughts here. I've already set up a new topic at the forum. Please join in the discussion whenever you have a chance.

If you are interested in joining the Slaves please leave a message in the comment area along with your email address. If you already have left a message and did not receive an email--I'm unable to see the email addresses in Blogger--you will need to leave it in the actual comment. I will send out an invite so you can post here, and you can easily register for the EditBoard forum--it just takes a few minutes. Thanks!