Saturday, April 16, 2022

Sarah Bird's Last Dance on the Starlight Pier takes you into the world of Depression-era dance marathons

Awakening exhausted on the Galveston beach after a dance marathon, Evie Grace Devlin witnesses the fiery destruction of the Starlight Palace, the performance venue, while recalling a terrible mistake she made.

Following this striking opening, the story rewinds three years to 1929, as Evie flees her traumatic vaudeville past and her vain, abusive mother by enrolling in nursing school in Galveston. Here she finds friendship and her calling. When her nursing pin is unjustly withheld, Evie grudgingly returns to the entertainment world as nurse for a dance marathon group, including its dashing star, Zave.

Bird (Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, 2018) is a master at crafting narrative voices, and Evie’s is an irresistible blend of scrappy determination and vulnerability. Despite her street smarts, her instincts sometimes lead her astray.

The Depression is a multifaceted character in this addictive tale, which evokes ferocious dust storms, dance marathons’ demanding rules, and Chicago nightlife as acutely as the emotions of desperate Americans seizing happiness wherever they can. As the novel stirringly demonstrates in multiple ways, home can be found amid people who accept us for ourselves.

Last Dance on the Starlight Pier is published this month by St. Martin's; I wrote this review for Booklist's March 1 issue. 

Some additional comments:

- Interestingly, one aspect of the text has changed since I read it. The Edelweiss e-copy had "Starlite Palace" and "Starlite Pier," although the title spelled it Starlight. I checked against the Look Inside on Amazon just now, and the book now has "Starlight," so I've adjusted it in my review above. The publisher must have decided before publication to use the more conventional spelling throughout.  Confusing for those of us who read it early!  (I prefer the original spelling, fwiw)

- No room to say this in the review, but one favorite character was Sofie Amadeo, Evie's best friend and fellow nursing student, and the daughter of the Italian crime family that essentially runs Galveston. If you're expecting a stereotypically pampered Mafia princess, you won't find it here. Sofie's determined to chart her own course in life.

- The world of Depression-era dance marathons is so alluring and strange. There's a reason Evie is brought on board as a nurse (the performers' feet get tired, and they're susceptible to injuries). In order to outlast their opponents on the dance floor, and earn the big cash prize, couples take turns sleeping in each other's arms while the awake partner shuffles them around. Participants also received free meals, one big perk at a time when hunger and poverty were widespread.  Read more at Atlas Obscura.

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