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To Dance at the Palais Royale

by Janet McNaughton

Here’s a nice tale to stick on the Early Modern end of the Canadian historical fiction shelf. Janet McNaughton has taken a thread from her own family to explore Toronto in the Jazz Age, a period rarely examined in Canadian, American, or British fiction for young readers. In 1928, 17-year-old Agnes leaves the coal pits of Scotland to join her older sister in suburban Deer Park as a domestic servant. Like today, domestic help had to be imported because “Canadian girls wouldn’t work as servants.” Familiar with long days and hard work in a family with seven siblings, Agnes is fortunate to find a situation where she is well-treated and fairly paid according to the standards of the time. She joins an upwardly mobile family delighted to acquire a “British” maid (all their friends have one). A Cinderella/Eliza Doolittle theme provides the title reference, when Agnes is briefly courted by a university student who mistakes her for a social equal. In a borrowed dress and purloined shoes, she joins a trio of her contemporaries (in age but not class) in a magical night at Toronto’s Palais Royale dance hall. All ends poignantly when Agnes is spotted in her maid’s uniform serving tea, but the author has done her homework and is careful to make her character’s expectations modest and consistent with the period; Agnes is ultimately more embarrassed by her admirer’s mistake than beset with unrealistic romantic dreams.

Another subplot involves the Jewish community in the Spadina Market area, where Agnes is briefly hired to give conversational English lessons to a young Polish bride in an arranged marriage. The anti-Semitism of both the upper class and the working class are sensitively explored, and the novel is careful to avoid sentimentality and easy solutions.

Undertones of social strife and class tension are glimpsed through Agnes’s growing awareness of her mother’s exhaustion and the vapidness of the flapper generation. But a sense of Scottish reserve permeates the story, with the result that Agnes’s emotional life is not fully developed; she remains a foil for the picture of Toronto in the Twenties that the author wishes to portray. Her plausible naivete also serves to block the reader from full involvement in her interior life.

The reading audience of To Dance at the Palais Royal should mirror Kit Pearson’s: girls between nine and 12. The love interest added after Agnes’s embarrassed brush with the upper classes is a typically Canadian solution – a handsome, slightly iconoclastic Newfoundlander turns out to be an appropriate prince. This story is therefore not just about Agnes, but about many Canadian families, and many readers may find their own family history touched upon in its pages.


Reviewer: Mary Beaty

Publisher: Tuckamore/Creative


Price: $11.95

Page Count: 232 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-895-3870-1

Released: Nov.

Issue Date: 1996-8


Age Range: ages 12-14