Madeira Mondays: Last Dance on the Starlight Pier by Sarah Bird (Book Review)

The only thing I knew about ‘dance marathons‘, prior to reading Sarah Bird’s new novel, was that Lorelai and Rory took part in one during that episode of Gilmore Girls. Turns out, they were all the rage in the 1930’s during the depression in the USA. It was a time when people were down on their luck and wanted something to root for, someone to cheer for, and ultimately something loud, ridiculous, chaotic and fun to distract them from their troubles.

This is the world that Bird’s heroine – Evie Grace – finds herself swept up in. Although Evie dreams of becoming a nurse, when her previous life in vaudeville catches up with her, it’s through dance marathons that she finds a glimmer of hope to regain the future that she lost. This book was fun, picaresque and full of adventure in a way that perfectly suits this glitzy, turbulent time period.

For full disclosure, Sarah Bird, a well-known Texas author, is actually a friend of my family (as regular readers of this blog might know, I’m originally from Austin, Texas!). So I was absolutely delighted to receive a copy of her latest book and genuinely enjoyed our plucky heroine Evie’s struggles to survive in the 1930’s South. There are two (well, actually, THREE!) things that I enjoyed most about this book. The first is the setting. It’s set in Galveston, Texas which, at least for me, was a really unusual place to read about in a novel. We see a lot of books set in London, NYC etc. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, and many stories still to tell in those places, it was great to get a story set in a different location, especially one that I’d been to but knew little about. Turns out, Galveston was controlled by one Italian family (think: the Capones) and was known as the ‘playground of the southwest’, a place to gamble, party and escape some of the economic troubles facing many other parts of the country. So I loved the unusual setting.

Another thing that I really appreciated about the book was how much other stuff from the 1930s Bird manages to weave in, in a really natural way. We have discussions of (sometimes horrifying) medical procedures of the time. We have Hoovervilles (shantytowns where victims of the economic collapse lived). We’ve old vaudevillians, mobsters and showbiz guys who say things like ‘no dice’! We’ve got the dust bowl, we’ve got Al Capone, we’ve got speakeasies. There are discussions of politics and frequent mentions of FDR (the book’s climax in fact coincides with a major moment for FDR and a turning point in the country). And then, of course, we have 24 hour dance marathons (where the dancers keep dancing through the day and night for crowds of spectators)! One of the things I love most about historical fiction, no matter the era or the tone of the book, is work that genuinely engages with the time and place where it’s set. Work where it feels like the author not only knows but has a deep affection and passion for the time period. I felt that with Bird’s book.

A dance marathon in 1923, from the National Photo Company collection at the Library of Congress, accessed via Wikimedia

One of the quotes on the back of the book from Alan Brennert says that the book reads like a ‘rediscovered movie from the 1930’s’ and that sums it up perfectly! I’ve had the privilege of seeing many films from the 1930’s (my partner is a film critic and I’ve seen a lot of restored films from this era and from the 20s as well) and it DOES feel like that. Absolutely. We have the shimmering glimmer of penthouse suits in Chicago, and we have the desolation of a dust storm in rural Texas and very much in between. As I mentioned at the start of this post, this book is an adventure and definitely does have the feel of one of those old films for sure.

My final favorite thing – without giving anything away – is that the characters’ attitudes towards, let us say, deviant sexual practices (which is a theme in the book) feels very authentic to the time. Too frequently, authors try to put a 21st century ideology into a 20th or 19th or 18th century character’s mind and it takes me out of the story. As much as we don’t like to think it, even kind and decent people believed things that we’d find unacceptable, and even deplorable, now. Just as, in hundreds of years, people will likely find our beliefs super dated, if not offensive and reprehensible. Bird manages to have that perfect balance of a character feeling period-appropriate (in terms of her mindset) but not so much so that it alienates a modern reader. That’s a difficult thing to do.

All in all, I’d definitely recommend the book if you’re hankering for a 1930’s tale of show biz, redemption and a hell of a lot of fun dancing. The book is out next month, April 2022. If you’re in the USA, you can pre-order it from Barns and Noble here (or from your own favorite local bookstore).

Thanks very much to the publicity team at St. Martin’s Press for sending me an Advance Reader Copy for review.

Madeira Mondays is a series of blog posts all about history and historical fiction. Usually we focus on 18th century things, but sometimes I branch out into other eras (like with this post!).

I’m away on a writing residency at Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands in March 2022, so I won’t be responded to comments as quickly as usual. But please do feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think about the book (does it seem up your street?) or what you’ve been reading/enjoying recently! Thanks as always for reading and have a great weekend.

PS Today’s featured image is a postcard of Galveston from the 1940s

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