Dance Hall Road
by Marion Douglas
Insomniac Press. 480 pages, $15.95
DANCE HALL ROAD opens with a teenager, Jimmy Drake, handing Adrian Drury a picture of an electric chair. What young Adrian has done isn’t clear, but one girl is dead and another is injured. Using two intertwined narratives, one working forward to the beginning of the other, Marion Douglas gradually reveals the details of these tragic events and the culpability of the characters. The gift of the photograph also establishes the darkly comic tone of the novel. Jimmy Drake and his father have “electric chairs and capital punishment as a hobby. Last summer they’d gone to look at a chair in Florida and taken pictures of it the way other people photograph monuments or rock formations.”
What Adrian Drury and his sister Rose mostly turn out to be guilty of is a sense of superiority. They underestimate their friends, the Farrell kids who live in run-down East Flax: Maddy, the tomboyish basketball star, and Randy, an obsessive-compulsive who endlessly rearranges the cans in his mother’s store. Adrian is careless while Rose is interfering. Like a modern-day Emma, Rose sets out to raise the social status of Maddy, whom she views as a charitable project, even going so far as to make her dentist father fix Maddy’s teeth. What Rose doesn’t recognize, at least at first, is her sexual attraction to Maddy, which, when the girls act on it, has unforeseen consequences.
The story of Maddy and Rose is one among many in this novel. Other tales feature alcoholism, infidelity, mental illness, bad parenting, and men who lust for teenage girls. But no matter how repugnant some of the characters may appear, Douglas never allows us to lose sympathy for them. She entertains without stooping to caricature as she delicately shows us how fear, hurt, and pride can affect our judgment.
Douglas’ style is charmingly whimsical. Her characters describe their feelings in a fanciful manner that occasionally grates but is more often successful. When Rose enters Maddy’s life, she thinks, “Until recently [she]had thought the circle of horizon surrounding East Flax to be secured, a blue cotton sky stitched to burlap earth. Visitors were allowed some access where seams had loosened but always went home, never making a destination of Maddy Farrell.” Dance Hall Road is set in 1970 in the imaginary town of Flax, Ontario, but this novel isn’t grounded in many details of its place or era. Rather, Dance Hall Road is a big-hearted book about a small town.
Nairne Holtz is the author of The Skin Beneath (2007).