With her mother ill, it’s up to fifteen-year-old Ruby Jacinski to support her family. But in the 1940s, the only opportunities open to a Polish-American girl from Chicago’s poor Yards is a job in one of the meat packing plants. Through a chance meeting with a local tough, Ruby lands a job as a taxi dancer and soon becomes an expert in the art of “fishing”: working her patrons for meals, cash, clothes, even jewelry. Drawn ever deeper into the world of dance halls, jazz, and the mob, Ruby gradually realizes that the only one who can save her is herself. A mesmerizing look into a little known world and era.
Ruby Jacinski is a good daughter. She has always done whatever was necessary to take care of her family. With a deceased father & a mother riddled with rheumatoid arthritis, Ruby drops out of school & goes to work in the meat packing plant. Even with all her hard work, it's just not enough. The basic ends aren't really being met & Ruby is at a loss as to what to do.
Enter Paulie, a rather smarmy young gent, who introduces Ruby to the idea of teaching the latest dances to willing-and-able-to-pay men. While she's a bit stricken by the idea of dancing with strange men for money, she does love a good beat & soon enough she's working at a taxi-dance hall. Earning it's name because the men are renting girls a dance at a time, Ruby soon finds herself out of her league in regards to customers' expectations & some stiff competition. Never one to give up, especially with everything at stake, Ruby begins to navigate the tricky waters of hiding her profession from her family & still being flashy enough to catch the big paying customers. Her balancing act is precarious at best & sooner or later, something's got to give.
Such a fascinating time period! This book instantly caught my eye because it's an era that not many people write about. Prohibition is big for the 20's & the hippies are good for the 60's, but the 40's seem to get lost in teen literature unless it's about the war. Well this book turns that notion on it's head by setting us up in the hip & swinging Chicago night life. We learn about all sorts of historical settings like the boom of jazz music, the struggle of the lower-class immigrant families & the illicit scenes that pervade the seedier parts of major cities.
Ruby moves through all these worlds with the biggest of eyes allowing the reader to really gain a sense of what it was like to live it. Such a passionately vibrant character in such muddled times helps the reader understand the reality of day to day struggles for a young woman. Even more characteristic of the time period is the trusting nature & gender roles that everyone subscribes to throughout all the sub-societies.
The story-telling is masterful with rich details that I can only presume come from either extensive research or first-hand tellings. This radically different world, in much simpler times, is a nice reprieve from the hustle & bustle that is our day to day existence. There really wasn't anything about this book that turned me off. The characters were unique & the story was one that I will never forget. A fast read, with deeper sentiments, it's no wonder that Ten Cents a Dance made ALA's Top Ten Teen Reads in 2009. I will worn those who might forget (or even be unaware) but as this is set in the 1940's, segregation is still a big thing & mixing races (for any purpose) is taboo, so there are some sensitive word choices (obviously made for authenticity). Nothing that you wouldn't read in Mark Twain, but enough to get the point across.
Fans of this might want to also try these historical fictions: The Luxe, Bright Young Things, Flygirl or The Vespertine. (All links go to my reviews). Anyone else read this one? What else would you suggest?