Monday, August 31, 2009

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

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