In 2008, Marina Endicott attracted widespread admiration with her second novel, Good to a Fault, a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist and winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Canada and the Caribbean. With a contemporary setting in Saskatoon and a faded insurance-adjuster heroine, Good to a Fault was “quiet” in the best sense. It also had a sly wit and unpredictable turns of plot, and it wrestled adroitly with a very big theme, goodness.
Now, along comes The Little Shadows. Set on vaudeville stages all over the west of the United States and Canada in the years before and during the First World War, it has a big cast of characters and is noisy – most often in a good way. Clearly, there is no Endicott “brand.” If you removed her name from the two books, it would be a rare reader who realized they had the same author.
And yet different as The Little Shadows is from its predecessor, it has Endicott’s wry sensibility, her pithy lyricism and her skill at pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet. Like the previous novel, this one also concerns itself with big ideas: the point of art, sisterly and familial love and, as the war’s shadow extends and darkens, the meaning of life itself.
It begins like a melodrama, with three fatherless sisters and their widowed mother making their way in the seductive and competitive world of vaudeville. Aurora, the eldest, is a beauty with a gorgeous soprano voice. Clover is more serious, “the watcher” with a gift for monologues, and the baby, Bella, is flirtatious and comic.
How you feel about vaudeville – or perhaps, how you feel about Endicott’s deft descriptions of its performers and their acts – will affect your reaction to the book’s opening. Comparisons with the Crummles’ theatrical troupe in Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby are inevitable, but while Dickens indulged those characters for hilarious purposes, Endicott knows and loves this world almost to excess. At times, I wondered how much detail, no matter how delicious, I wanted about yet another routine performed by another singer, juggler, comedian or dog troupe. This is a long, expansive book and it deserves to be, but it would have benefited from a more streamlined start, with the sisters and their dilemmas almost always centre-stage and the other acts described with more dispatch.
The Little Shadows started cooking for me on Page 86, when the girls come under the tutelage of the dwarfish, ferocious theatre manager Gentry Fox. His scathing review of their singing is riveting, and from that moment I was happily captured, accompanying the sisters as they sang for their supper (and sometimes went hungry) in a score of towns.
Endicott is at her most magical when she describes their singing and dancing acts. Wisely, she chooses familiar songs, such as After the Ball or Buffalo Gals, so we can hear Aurora’s and Bella’s sopranos melding with Clover’s alto, as they dip, bow and plait themselves in their mother’s graceful, homemade choreography. Endicott’s love for this material, her confident musicality and her understanding of the sometimes subtle relation between emotion and art is nothing short of wondrous.
Clover falls for the quicksilver brilliance of Victor, Bella for the high-flying Nando and Aurora makes an opportunistic marriage with a manager while she fancies another man. With three more-or-less middle-class girls on the dubiously respectable vaudeville circuit, sex has a guaranteed role, and Endicott’s treatment of it is one of the book’s most original elements.
Although the sisters look fairy-like on the stage, they have fully imagined bodies: They urinate, vomit, menstruate, have urges. Endicott is matter-of-fact both about the predatory behaviour they encounter in the troupe and about their cool-eyed reaction. About sex they are variously businesslike, curious and avid, depending on the partner. (Men who believe that the sight and feel of a penis are transporting to women may want to don emotional armour before reading some of the relevant, funny scenes.)
After a squalid encounter, Aurora thinks with some satisfaction that she could use that in her art. As their intrepid mama tells them, in another context, “You do what you have to do.” (Two small cavils, both related to sex. Surely, even in their day, girls paid more attention to the arrival of their periods than Aurora and Clover do. And the title of the melodrama featuring Aurora, The Casting Couch, anticipates that expression by at least 25 years.)
“Vaudeville” means “voices of the city” in Old French, and this novel is redolent of the small-to-large western cities of a century ago. But its beautiful conclusion happens on a farm near Qu’Appelle, Sask., where the sisters reunite as the war looms large. Bella’s husband is enlisting, the once astoundingly agile Victor has been wounded and Aurora is (with one important exception) alone, where she is always happiest: “Not pretending, not folding herself small to fit in someone else’s grasp.”
In this rural peace (reminiscent of another pastoral final scene, in E.M. Forster’s Howards End), they talk about art and war and the pointlessness of it all. Victor disagrees that art is pointless: “Perfecting it. Making it – realer, or less real ... We are only pointing at the moon, but it is the moon.” Aurora, Clover and Bella – each now accomplished in her true metier – embark on tour once more. That’s the Finale, or so you’d think. But, in the best vaudeville tradition, there’s one last surprise in the Encore.
Katherine Ashenburg is the author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History.