Dawn Powell’s 1930 novel Dance Night has me thinking about what it would be like to live in a small town with very little education, very few job opportunities, and only vague ideas about what life is like in other places. The characters in the novel go to the movies regularly, but other than that, the chief source of information they have about the world outside their town comes from traveling salespeople and a dancing master, and the reach of these people is very small. The people who travel the farthest and would therefore have the most information are also the book’s most despicable characters. So everyone else is left with vague dreams and a strong pull to stay right where they are, doing the things their parents did.
Dance Night tells the story of Morry Abbott, a young man who is trying to figure out what he wants to make of his life. He lives with his mother behind the millinery shop she owns where he feels increasingly uncomfortable with the overwhelming femininity of the place. He is trying to find his way into the masculine worlds of the factory and the bar, but his youth and inexperience leave him uncertain and embarrassed. The novel also tells the story of Jen, a 14-year-old who has been abandoned by her mother and taken in by a local family. She feels isolated and alone and misses her younger sister, left behind in an orphanage. She turns to Morry for some companionship, and he is drawn to her, attracted by her hero-worship, but also repelled by her obvious neediness.
What has stayed with me about the book is all the unhappiness and the longing and the misunderstandings that haunt just about every character. Morry doesn’t know what to make of the young women who surround him who make fun of him but also, very confusingly, flirt with him. Morry’s mother is married to a man who is hardly ever home, but who makes her life miserable when he is. She is also desperately in love with the dancing master, who is hardly aware of her presence. The mother’s friend is having an affair. Her assistant torments Morry but also wants to be seen with him. The most important man about town, the one with all the money and property, moves through a series of superficial relationships. No one, it seems, is content, and nobody has much of an idea of what to do about it.
The townspeople do have one outlet — their weekly dance night, which begins with a dancing lesson, followed by the dance itself. Everyone, from old to young, looks forward to these evenings as a time to bring some lightness into their lives, but enjoyable as they are, they are also scenes of sexual competition and jealousy.
And there is also the problem of work. Morry gets a job in the factory and feels proud of himself for a while, but before too long he sees how builders are developing the town, has his own ideas of what kind of houses the town needs, and joins forces with a local architect to try to make his dream houses a reality. He becomes a big man about town himself, making plans and talking them up to the townspeople, shuttling about from person to person trying to make things happen. All this is immensely satisfying for a while, but it’s also precarious and uncertain, and for all Morry knows, it could collapse on him.
Morry senses that his world is changing and that there are opportunities out there — opportunities that could transform his life, if only he could get a proper hold on them. It’s a place where hard work and industry and vision can take him places, but he just can’t quite seem to make things work for him. His friend Jen is also full of dreams; she wants to sing and dance on stage and to live a busy and exciting life in some big city. But the problem, again, is how to make it happen. How can these people escape?
The picture Powell paints of a small town in changing and uncertain times is a grim one, but the portrait seems so real and the characters are so compelling that the book is a fascinating read. It makes me very glad I’m fortunate enough to live in an entirely place and time. Of course, we have our own uncertain times to deal with, but I think for a lot of people, it’s become easier to imagine a way out of claustrophic small towns.
11 responses to “Dance Night”
It’s hard to imagine being brought up in such a situation with so few opportunities–you do wonder where people get their dreams in such a small world as it once was–the movies, in Morry’s case books, and outsiders like the dancing instructor and the investors coming into town. One of the scenes that made me both chuckle and inwardly cringe was when Grace was telling Jen about how she was getting educated by the people she waited on at Bauer’s restaurant when really she had it all backwards. It was sad really. It almost makes it all the more amazing that Powell was able to not only go to college but really get out and write books. Wonderful post, Dorothy–you always write about books so well!
Fantastic review, Dorothy. I agree with everything you say about the book, and am interested in the way you draw out the gender paradox of Morry, stuck in a feminised environment he hates, but sickened by the brute masculinity of the bar. I’ll review this later today.
I didn’t get a chance to read the book unfortunately. Your review of it makes it sound really interesting and if Danielle’s information about Powell the other day decided me to not return the book to the library, your review has made me much more interested in making the effort to read it.
How on earth do you have time to add to my tbr pile when school just started??
Your review makes me wonder if people still feel like that today, getting their information about “the world” from TV and internet moreso than perhaps books or traveling strangers. I don’t think strangers stick out in an average town they way they must have back in the 1930s.
It would be interesting to me to see what this story would look like, if set in modern times. Because I think nowadays, people think becoming a celebrity on American Idol or the reality shows is the way out of their mundane existences.
Your review and Litlove’s review have got me quite intrigued. I will definitely be looking for this book in the next few weeks to add to the big stack I hope to get through on my maternity leave…
This sounds great, I’m definitely going to get hold of a copy. The claustrophobia of small town life is something I’ve always been afraid of (probably because I so narrowly avoided it). It must still be difficult for people to envisage different lives for themselves, let alone to make it happen.
Danielle — thank you! I should have mentioned Morry’s reading — I’d forgotten about that. The scene you mention with Grace and Jen is really sad, you’re right. There’s just so much the characters don’t know. I can see why the movies and the dancing master are so important in the book — they are some of the very few sources of information available.
Litlove — I enjoyed your review a lot! The gender stuff was disturbing and very well done, I thought — Morry is pretty vicious to women, although they treat him badly as well. There seems to be no way for Morry to learn a better way of relating to women.
Stefanie — I do think it’s a very interesting book and well worth your time. It captures something important about American history and culture, and about what small American towns were like.
Courtney — oh, I read the book well before school started. School is hitting me full force now, and it’s shameful how little reading I’ve done this week …
Debby — I’m sure there are people who still feel that way today, although the sources of information about the outside world are much greater. But not everyone has internet access or access to other sources of information, and having those things doesn’t necessarily lead to led isolation. A modern updating would be very interesting!
Verbivore — oh, maternity leave! I hope you get a good amount of reading done, although I imagine you’ll have some distractions 🙂 I’m very curious to hear what you will think of this book.
Musings — you are welcome to borrow my copy if you want. I spent time growing up in a small town, but I’d seen other places and didn’t feel the same panic other people did about not being able to get out. It’s interesting to imagine what that panic must have felt like.
Wonderful review! You are right, can you imagine living in a bitty town where the only thing to look forward to was a weekly dance? And, to top it off everyone knew your business.
I know that when I finished reading the book I definitely wondered what happened to Morry and Jen. I hope they were able to get out of there on their own terms.
Great review. As I said to Litlove, I must read more Dawn Powell. Now that I am living in very small-town America (and I’ve decided this one is probably more progressive than most due to its proximity to many American cities — that most don’t tend to visit — and the fact that it’s such a tourist trap), I have an idea that things haven’t changed all that much…
This sounds like it would be a good companion to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street.
Iliana — I used to live in a tiny little town, but I think small-town life may be easier on bookworms! I just spent all my time reading — well, that and going to high school. It was probably harder on single adults.
Emily — I suspect a lot of people do feel the way Powell describes even today, although it seems likely that the internet may help some people out, if they have access. I’ve never read Lewis and should some day!