The sisters — “the Little Shadows” of the title — are on their way to their first-ever professional audition in Fort Macleod, Alberta at The Empress, a minor theatre if ever there was one, but still a start to a professional career:
The door stuck — jammed — and their mama jerked her head so someone would help her pull. Bella did (no glove to soil, her right-hand one gone missing that morning and nothing for it but to keep her hand in her pocket, or in Mama’s) and then Clover, too. They yanked off-time — then again, together, and the door burst open. They fell back, then moved forward into a blur of darkness and warmth, with somewhere in the distance red velvet and those arpeggios, very much louder now. Inside, a lobby gradually framed itself for their dazzled eyes, and a lighter square, two doors standing open into the theatre hall. An old scrubwoman, busy on the floor, grabbed her bucket away from the clumsy boots. Bella whispered an apology; after one glare the woman let her by and went back to her scrubbing.
Marina Endicott arrived on the Canadian literary scene with some flair in 2008 with her debut novel, Good To A Fault, which made the Giller shortlist. A traffic accident in a Saskatchewan city opens a Pandora’s box of emotions, hopes and plots and the author successfully developed an interior story of desire and intrigue around the children of the woman who was injured in that accident and the woman who caused it. Readers who loved it really loved it.
So it would be fair to say that there has been some anticipation awaiting Endicott’s next novel. And it would be equally fair to say that she has gone somewhere completely different — The Little Shadows does share some of Good To A Fault’s narrative techniques, but it is a very different novel. The author has already been recognized with a Giller longlisting (but no shortlisting) and a Governor-General’s literary award shortlisting — you would have to conclude Endicott has officially arrived as one of the emerging authors on the new Canadian A-list.
Above all else, The Little Shadows is an historical novel, one that chronicles the vaudeville world in Western North America in the pre-Great War years and during the war itself. The teenage Avery sisters will flunk that Fort Macleod audition, but they are impressive enough that the departure of another act opens a slot for them:
Cleveland said, ‘I’ve lost my opener. I’ll take your girls to do it in one, right off the top. Start tomorrow. Dispense with the baby frills, let them sing in shirtwaists and skirts. More high-tone, if you get me. And stick with the heartfelt ballads for now.’
He held out a booking sheet. ‘We’re here till Tuesday, then packed up and a one-night stand in High River and then we’re out to Crowsnest for three –’
Fort Macleod, High River, the Crowsnest Pass, Butte, Helena — these are hardly the centre of the entertainment world, either then or now. Indeed, gigs in Calgary and Edmonton — also not exactly the big time — represent a major step up. And always in the dreams of the Avery sisters (they will come to be known as “the Bella Auroras”, a play on two of the three names) the prospect of an eventual booking in Chicago, or even New York, at a thousand a week is what keeps them going.
That, plus there is nothing else that they can do.
The strongest storyline in Endicott’s novel is that one, the obscure history of what the vaudeville world was like in the barren wastelands of Western North America as the Great War loomed. The show promoters share questionable business ethics and they exploit their performers, to the point of entering affairs with, or even marrying, some of the more attractive ones (yes, that does happen to not just one, but two, of the Avery sisters). The performers, meanwhile, have little alternative but to put up with this distorted set of rules. Performing is the only thing that they know and their only option to make a living and sometimes performing extends beyond the stage.
If the world of vaudeville is the essential backdrop, Endicott has another set of story lines in the form of exploring the maturing of three teenage girls, each with her own claim to distinction. Aurora is classically beautiful, Clover has a dark attractiveness and Bella a giddy playfulness — in the entertainment world, that makes each of the three compelling in her own way. And much of the novel is devoted to examining how those different kinds of attractions play out.
The result of all this is a very entertaining novel, albeit one that for me came up a little short on the “impact” front. It is quite long (538 pages in my version) and, to be frank, the two dominant plot lines of vaudeville history and teenage love affairs just were not strong enough to sustain it. On the other hand, the writing is more than adequate and some of the secondary characters are very well developed. If you are headed off on holiday and want a longish book that can be read in 30-50 page stretches, you could do a lot worse than take this one along.
The Little Shadows is different enough that it deserved its Giller longlisting — indeed, it is an interesting examination of one of the worlds that resulted in the developing West that Guy Vanderhaeghe described in A Good Man. But it is also slight enough that the jury was right in leaving it off the shortlist. The Avery sisters (or Bella Auroras) are a good act, but they aren’t yet ready to occupy the coveted slot of show “closers”.