8th Mar 2012
The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
Marina Endicott’s moving third novel The Little Shadows, was longlisted for the Giller Prize, Canada’s prestigious literary award. It’s the second of her books to be nominated; her previous novel Good to a Fault was shortlisted, and also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book.
The Little Shadows could be, but is not quite, a coming of age story. We meet the three Avery sisters in adolescence – sixteen-year-old Aurora, fifteen-year-old Clover and thirteen-year-old Belle – and follow them through to adulthood, as they build careers, fall in and out of love and lust, and face the devastation of the First World War.
But they’ve been forced to come of age before we’re ever introduced to them, pushed out of their comfortable home in rural Saskatchewan and into premature adulthood by the back-to-back deaths of their baby brother and depressed father.
They start out on the small-town vaudeville circuit in early twentieth-century Canada to make ends meet, each adding a few years to their ages to make it all a bit more legal.
Their Mama, a previous vaudeville performer who gave up her career to live as the wife of a schoolteacher, depends on them not only to be the family’s breadwinners, but also to achieve the dreams she abandoned.
As they work their way across Mid-Western North America to find work and escape grief, the Avery sisters – or Belle Auroras, as they’re known onstage – become immersed in the flamboyant ‘mid-time’ vaudeville community.
Ambitious and bold but inexperienced, they find themselves surrounded by a mix of would-be protectors and predators. As they try and often fail to sort the good from the bad, and their mother descends further into despair, the Avery sisters come to depend more on themselves and their developing talent.
Starting as a sentimental singing-dancing-sister-act, they each find their strength as individual artists, and the thrill of performance is what saves and drives them.
The novel’s characters are as varied, bizarre and mesmerizing as their stage acts: from heartbreakingly-good to moustache-twirlingly-evil, the richly developed cast is made up of geniuses, hacks, bullies, saviours and drunks.
Although the stage is crowded with vivid characters, the novel’s spotlight remains focused on the moving relationship between Aurora, Clover and Belle.
They are shaped and grounded by that sisterly love, even when their ambitions take them across the world and away from each other, in a way that’s genuinely touching but not sugary.
Endicott is a beautifully controlled writer. The Little Shadows moves slowly at points, but this builds purposeful, simmering tension from Overture to Finale (her chapter headings, not mine).
She vividly re-creates the magical, glittering and grubby backstage world of vaudeville and the almost perpetually snowy, rapidly-developing wilderness of the Prairies. A beautiful and recommended read.
Recommended for: Anyone looking to be transported by some old-fashioned theatrical magic
Or for some classic sisterly love, try Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, my comforting read-it-once-a-year standby (to draw over-simplified but fun parallels: Aurora is a Meg, Clover is a Beth and Belle is a Jo-Amy hybrid)