Ten Cents a DanceIt’s 1941 and fifteen-year-old Ruby’s working canning pickled hog’s feet in a meatpacking factory. (Ewwww.) She is not happy with this arrangement, but her father is long dead, her sister is even younger than she is, and her mother’s arthritis is too bad to allow her to work—she formerly worked in the factory where Ruby is now—and someone needs to earn their daily bread. Barely. So when a local—and very attractive—bad boy dances up a storm with Ruby at a party one night and then tells her that she could make big money as a taxi-dancer, dancing with men who pay a dime for the privilege, she takes the advice and gets herself a new job. It’s hardly reputable, so she lies to her mother, and the work has its own expenses to be paid, so she spends more on gowns and makeup than she brings home, and, as these things tend to, the lies and the spending build and build. And then there’s the bad boy and what he wants from Ruby.

Ruby is an obnoxious brat who, as a fellow taxi dancer points out, never listens to advice. She manages to be a sympathetic protagonist anyway, in part because she’s vulnerable under her tough veneer and in part because it’s easy to see how blinded she is by the shiny things being dangled in her path, distracting her from how much she’s getting in over her head. Also, she means well; she does want to get her family out of the slums, she does want to give her kid sister a good life, she does want to be a good girlfriend. It’s hard to watch her try so desperately and fall so flat, but it’s compelling, too.

The writing in Ten Cents a Dance is very strong; Ruby’s first-person, slangy narration easily conveys a sense of time, place, and class status. Her casual racism—which, mercifully, diminishes over the course of the novel as she gets to know some people of color—is an honest reflection of her upbringing and is presented in a matter-of-fact way, without sensationalizing.

In some ways, the ending feels a bit too neat, but in other ways it’s a perfect compromise—not too grim, but not rosy, either. I think the sense of over-neatness comes from how quickly the final resolution occurs and the slightly over-sappy final pages. (Movies should not end with voice-overs. Neither should books. Metaphorically.)

Anyway, the ending to the novel may be a bit pat, but the ending to the book makes up for it: there’s an author’s note that relates, in a few simple pages, the story of the author’s aunt, a taxi dancer. It’s a nifty bit of oral history, and, while the novel stands alone, it provides an extra bit of context and connection.

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Ten Cents a Dance ~ Christine Fletcher ~ Christine Fletcher’s Blog

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Enna BurningFollowing The Goose Girl, Enna Burning is a second tale set in Bayern, Hale’s well-crafted fantasy world. This volume follows Enna, a relatively minor character in the first book, as she has an adventure as bold and as harrowing as that experienced by Ani (sometimes known as Isi) in the first book. Bored and grumpy after months in the forest with little human interaction, Enna is both intrigued and dismayed when he brother comes back from a trip with a piece of vellum he won’t let her see and a new gift with fire, and also newly inconstant, prone to sudden tempers and flashes of fiery violence. A sudden war between Bayern and a kingdom to the south gives Enna and her brother new direction, but also tragedy, and soon Enna finds herself grappling with the power and risk of fire.

As in The Goose Girl, the plot is ultimately less important than the characters and their psyches. Unlike The Goose Girl, Enna Burning is a very solitary book; while her friends have important roles, the heart of the book is Enna’s internal struggle: to control the fire and her own impulses, to trust herself and feel she deserves the trust of others, to forgive herself, to forgive her brother.

The very gentle style of writing made it difficult to lose myself in this book, but it stuck with me when I wasn’t reading. I kept returning to Enna’s issues, worrying about them and analyzing her psychological state and the way events—and characters—played upon her vulnerabilities. It’s not an exciting book, but it’s a rich one, plumbing the depths of a realistic, tormented young woman.

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Enna Burning ~ Shannon Hale
My review of The Goose Girl
My review of Rapunzel’s Revenge

Goose Girl Shannon HaleMy first exposure to this particular fairy tale was only a few months ago, when I was reading Troll’s-Eye View – a collection of short stories told from the villains’ points of view. The Goose Girl tells the story from a more traditional perspective, but with plenty of personality anyway.

Ani never fit in as a princess. Even as a baby, she was odd; only her aunt, herself an outsider, could make sense of her. Confident and comfortable when talking to swans and other birds—her aunt had taught her their language—she is nearly paralyzed with anxiety when interacting with most humans. However, she respects her position as Crown Princess and, with a lady in waiting who is much more skilled with people than she is, she watches and studies her mother and governance. But then she’s packed off to the neighboring country, separated from her own by mountains and woods that few pass, to be married off to a prince she knows nothing about. In true fairy tale form, a betrayal and reversal occur, sending the lady in waiting to the palace and the princess to the goose pasture.

Anyone familiar with fairy tales can predict the overall story arc fairly early in the novel, even if they have limited exposure to this particular story. It’s Ani who makes it special. The early descriptions of her panic in the face of socialization are a painfully accurate portrait of anxiety. Her disillusionment, as she realizes that her status does not guarantee her loyalty from everyone, paves the way for her evolution over the rest of the book: becoming comfortable in her skin for the first time, making friends for the first time, learning to trust again—this time not blind trust based on class, but earned trust based on shared experiences and friendship—and even learning how to lead.

The world Hale created is rich and interesting, with plenty of unplumbed depth. Unplumbed in this book, anyway; she has since written three more books (Enna Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born) set in the same world. Likewise, the supporting characters have personalities of their own, which I look forward to exploring in Hale’s later books.

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The Goose Girl ~ Shannon Hale
My review of Enna Burning
My review of Rapunzel’s Revenge

Rapunzel's Revenge CoverRapunzel didn’t grow up in a tower in some grim European forest: she grew up the pampered daughter of a witch in a sumptuous manor surrounded by a high wall in something like the American West. She was shut up in a gaint magical tree (it’s a tower-like structure) after she discovered that outside the manor were miles and miles of nasty mines run by the witch – whom Rapunzel had always called Mother – and in which her real mother worked as a slave. Bored in the tower, Rapunzel began to practice acrobatics and figured out that her ever-growing hair, when braided, could be used for the rope and lasso tricks she learned from a guard when she was younger. Thus, she frees herself and sets out on adventures in this rather Wild West.

This leads me to the book’s awesomeness:

Weaponized hair. Weaponized hair!
No damsel-in-distress, handsome-prince-to-the-rescue thing.

Alas, now I must discuss the book’s less-than-awesomeness.

As seems to be becoming usual, I was disappointed by a lack of use for the niftiness of the comic format. The most blatant failure of Rapunzel’s Revenge was overuse of first-person narration/inner monologue. An occasional thought-block in a comic can be used to great effect, but overuse weakens the narrative and denies the art its central role in conveying the emotional states of the character. If the character is speechless, you don’t need use words to tell us that she’s speechless.

Mostly, I just had a sense of potential unrealized; the concept is great, but it never rises much above silly.

Maybe it’s time for me to give up on graphic novels that didn’t start their lives as comic books. I just keep being disappointed.

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Rapunzel’s Revenge ~ Shannon Hale
My review of The Goose Girl
My review of Enna Burning