Ten Cents a Dance
Ruby Jacinski lives in a Chicago tenement called Back of the Yards in the fall of 1941. When she’s fifteen, her mother’s arthritis becomes so severe that Ruby must drop out of school to work full-time to support her mother and younger sister. Ruby takes a job at the packinghouse where her mother had worked and slaves away for a wage that will never be enough for all their overdue rent and grocery bills. When she meets Paulie Suelze, a local bad boy, everything changes. He gets Ruby a job as a taxi dancer at the Starlight Dance Academy, which isn’t an academy so much as a place for lonely men to pay ten cents to dance with pretty, gussied-up girls. Ruby loves dancing more than anything, but she soon learns that dancing at the Starlight is a far cry from her neighborhood drug store. Here every gift from a loyal customer comes with a price tag, and the price of becoming Paulie’s girl will cost the most of all.
Ten Cents a Dance was recommended to me by a fellow writer after she learned my work in progress is set during World War II. I was told it had a lot of historical details, but I was blown away by just how many. The evening gowns, the songs and dances, the racial stereotypes, the kitchen appliances, the insults and slang terms, the lack of familiarity with things we take for granted today like restaurants and personal vehicles—all of it threw me back in time and kept me there for all 349 pages of the book. Terms from the 1940s rolled off Ruby’s tongue as natural as you please, enough to make a fellow historical writer downright jealous. Jealous in a good way, though, in a make-me-keep-reading way. I refused to pick this book up when I had company for a long weekend, knowing I’d get lost in it and ignore my friends. I finished it two days after they left.
I have a hard time reading books that take place in the dredges of life, regardless of time period. I enjoy classic film noir and gangster movies, but to read about a teenage girl who gets herself mixed up with the unsavory characters Ruby meets is a bit too much, but by the time I got to those parts, I was hooked and had to know Ruby made it out okay. She does (not a spoiler, I promise!), but on her own terms. Those terms include making some tough decisions about a bad boy she thinks she loves, and for this I commend the author. I’ve read or watched so many stories lately about girls in love with bad boys but everything turns out all right because it’s “true love,” even though the boy never changes. Some of these guys are downright abusive, but that’s okay, because “he really loves me.” No one deserves that, and Ruby eventually comes to realize she doesn’t, either, though how she discovers this will make your heart pound and even give you a moment of laughter.
An odd coming-of-age story that is so true to its setting and its characters, Ten Cents a Dance is a rich, compelling read that will get your toes tapping.