Marina Endicott’s latest novel immerses the reader in the world of vaudeville in the years 1912–17, primarily in the Canadian West and Prairies. Though the story entertains and is ably researched, it does not achieve the resonance, emotional power, and mastery that distinguished the author’s 2008 work, Good to a Fault, which ranks as one of this reviewer’s favourite contemporary novels.
The Little Shadows begins with promise. The novel opens in the depths of winter, with a determined mother telling her three daughters to keep moving as they slog over a half-frozen field in gritty snow that stings their cheeks and finds its way beneath their collars. Following their father’s untimely death, 16-year-old Aurora, the beauty of the bunch, meditative Clover, wedged in the middle, and spunky Bella, the youngest, must earn their keep under the tutelage of their fond and frazzled mother, Flora. The four are headed to the Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod, Alberta, to audition the girls’ singing act.
The descriptions of the theatre are lush and evocative: the crimson curtain rippling like a velvet wave; the scalloped white footlights; the smell of must and sweat in the dressing room; a sign that warns performers not to say “slob” or “son-of-a-gun,” unless they want to be “cancelled peremptorily.” A memorable early scene features mischievous Bella crawling through the tunnel that runs under the theatre, now scraping against a rock, now jamming into a beam.
Endicott contrasts the claustrophobia of the theatre with the expansive Canadian landscape in prose honed to a hard, multifaceted beauty: “Snowlit wind, brilliant with ice-chips, swirled them along paths shovelled like tunnels through the drifts.” Her dialogue is lively, true to the period, and leavened with the humour that distinguished Good to a Fault and her debut novel, Open Arms.
Each chapter is splintered into light, quick vignettes, mirroring the style of vaudeville, which involves a series of acts on a common bill: singers, dancers, comedians, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, jugglers, and a grab-bag of other light entertainments. The problem is that vaudeville serves not only as the setting and subject for the novel, but the main character as well, overshadowing the sisters, who frequently dim to spectres. Despite third-person narration that shifts between the three girls and their mother, Endicott misses opportunities to plumb their interior lives and to mine their common past. When the reader learns the cause of the father’s death and that of the sole male child in the family, the losses are hastily skimmed over, buried in the theatrical carnival. In spite of its girth, The Little Shadows feels, in places, as crammed, rushed, and thin as vaudeville itself.
There is another problem with placing vaudeville front and centre. It is inherently difficult to distill the varied acts, meant to be experienced by a live audience, onto the page. Dozens of vaudeville acts are described, yet few manage to hold the reader’s interest. What’s more, the language is rife with cliché. Within a couple of pages, Endicott resorts to phrases such as “dropping like a dead bird,” “light as air,” and “a wind-blown leaf.” Elsewhere, Flora’s eyes fill with “tears of anxiety,” she “pump[s] away at the piano pedals,” and is “pleased as punch with her dear girlies.” Vaudeville is inherently hokey and melodramatic, but this tired language is simply numbing.
When the Avery girls are on the road, for instance during a 14-hour train trip into Montana to seek work on the “Death Trail” (which included Montana, Idaho, and the Dakotas), the break from the vaudeville stage is a welcome interlude. It is enjoyable to witness the sisters’ development as young women, struggling with love and becoming new mothers.
The crisis of the First World War inevitably enlarges their lives, and allows the story to take on greater depth and resonance. Details surrounding the Great War are deftly integrated into the narrative. The girls encounter a car-load of soldiers on a train to Camrose, and on a boat to England to visit her sweetheart, Victor, Clover gets a plum cabin because so many people cancelled their bookings after a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania. Later, Victor recalls camping with his regiment amid a foul smell, eventually realizing he was “lying on a mud-stew of shallow-buried bodies.”
Despite Endicott’s considerable strengths as a writer, The Little Shadows failed to move this reader. Endicott has ample experience as an actor, playwright, and theatre director, which is likely why the vaudeville milieu takes up so much space and attention.
Given the author’s background, perhaps this story will have a future as an adaptation on the stage or screen, where its theatrical aspects might be more at home. Unfortunately, the material does not work entirely well as a novel.