“‘It’s some kind of dance troupe?’
‘The Prairie Chicken dancers.’
‘What’s a prairie chicken?’
‘It’s a bird. Sort of a fat little thing.’
‘They can’t fly but they sure can shake.’”
When we first meet Nadine, the organizational brain behind the tour that will bring a group of Indigenous dancers to European stages, she’s in the throes of some violent diarrhea. This is par for the course for The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour, a humorous ensemble novel based (very loosely, we are told) on a group of traditional dancers who toured Europe in the 1970s.
Told from the perspectives of hopeless romantic Nadine, god-fearing spitfire Edna, and lone-wolf cowboy John – and prominently featuring Edna’s flirtatious and perceptive niece, Desiree – the novel grants readers a panoramic view of this ragtag group as they navigate overseas customs, international crime, and crises of self, with diary entries by Edna that serve to ground us in the trip itinerary. The endearingly deluded dancers, and the friends, foes, and kin they meet during their travels, are distinctly drawn by Saskatoon author, columnist, and comedian Dawn Dumont. It’s a joy to watch the world open up for these characters, to see them heal and make discoveries about themselves, returning home stronger and more confident than when they left.
The plot maps their trip from takeoff to touchdown over 15 days, with misadventurous stops in Chicago, Kiruna, Munich, and Rome. The story clips along quickly, and the twists Dumont throws at us are rarely expected. The atmosphere of the ’70s is created effectively with hints of Nixon and Trudeau politics, references to ABBA’s humble beginnings, and through the characters’ lexicon. There are occasional off-colour remarks about race, religion, nationality, and sexuality that were acceptable at the time but would certainly not fly today, and Dumont pulls it off by grappling with these identity politics within her characters’ psyches. The result is an all the more complex narrative.
The book is funny, without a doubt, but not free from darkness. Residential school trauma and colonial world views follow the group to Europe, and law enforcement’s prejudice acts as a constant foil to the characters’ goals. Even when the dancers are being revered, there’s an insidiousness to it.
And then there are the moments of unapologetic Indigenous joy that Dumont writes lovingly and with such care: sharing meals and stories of heartache, swapping gifts and ceremony, finding common ground between nations. In one particularly striking scene, Edna brings thousands of Indigenous people from across the globe together in a round dance on top of a Swedish hill at sunset: “What would this look like from space, she wondered? A group of Indians from everywhere holding hands around a mountain – would it appear to be the miracle that it felt like?”