Dancing In a Jar is a quiet, gentle epistolary novel. A refreshing look at a time gone by, in a place where the author grew up, and a community that knew how to live in the present and make the most out of life.
What I liked about Dancing In a Jar:
1)You will not be surprised to hear that my favourite part about this book is the history. The earthquake of 1929, the Great Depression, the fishery and mining industries, the influence of the church on the community, politics (Newfoundland was not a part of Canada yet), the stereotypes and beliefs about Newfoundland from outsiders, gender roles, the language and dialect of the region, and the past-times (radio, parties, cards, music and dancing, book clubs, knitting groups).
2)The portrayal of the community. Through the letters of Don and Urla back and forth to their family in the US, we see glimpses of some of the other people in the community, and how everyone works together to carve out a life in an isolated cove. Generous neighbours, frequent gatherings for parties or for listening to radio programs, taking care of each other’s children.
[Listening to the radio] Included in the broadcast are announcements about individuals, so people gather around just to catch up on the news of someone who has been sick or traveling or whatever. “Mr. Percy Cavanaugh of Grate’s Cove would like to advise his family that his operation went well but he needs some clean pajamas.” “Mrs. Effie Walsh advises her sister that the train is late leaving Lewisporte but to keep supper for her anyway.”
One of the ways in which the people there got through the Depression was by smuggling goods out of St. Pierre and Miquelon. When they knew the authorities were coming to inspect their houses for evidence of the smuggling, everyone started stuffing their ‘treasures’ into the snow banks.
There’s something satisfying to picture the people on that isolated coast enjoying fine French brandy and good pipe tobacco that likely would not have been available to even the rich merchants of St. John’s. –-Adele Poynter
3)Urla’s character development. In an interview, the author describes it as “... a question of developing the confidence as a young woman out of her element to do away with the stereotypes she had been exposed to and trust her own instincts.” I loved reading about Don and Urla’s acceptance in the community and how they ended up embracing it as their own. Urla often remarks that everyone there is happy despite their hardships because they know how to live in the present and enjoy what they have. She loves to be home visiting her family, but at the same time, she yearns to go back to Newfoundland. “Here she is blossoming, but not in a way that is recognized by her family and friends in the US, who instead see someone defeated by the move to Newfoundland.”
When I first arrived, I was concerned no one seemed to be thinking about the future as we seem to obsess about. But I think here, not focussing on what the future may bring enhances your chance of survival and certainly your capacity for happiness.
In truth, I am ashamed of my apprehensions when we first arrived in St. Lawrence. How could my view of isolation be so distorted? How could I not have known that you can be poor and rich at the same time?
4)The love story. Not your typical love story; only by reading between the lines of their letters do we see their devotion to each other, and their devotion to the Newfoundland landscape and their new home.
5)It’s based on a true story. Don and Urla were real people who wrote letters about a real place and real people. The author used the letters that existed to create their story by filling in the gaps.
We know from the beginning of the book that Urla is Don’s first wife. We also know that they had a baby named Barbara during their short marriage. So, we are also shown, through the letters, the tragedy that strikes the young couple. It’s sad, but gentle. And we are reminded that Don goes on to marry again; a lovely woman who shares all of Urla’s best traits, and who gives life to Adele Poynter so she can tell us this story.
A favourite passage:
Mom, you would be thrilled to learn he is an ideal husband. Just as you counseled, I left his socks exactly where he dropped them for two days and he got the message and has been more attentive ever since — well-considered advice!
For another (more coherent) review of Dancing In a Jar visit The Miramichi Reader.
*Thanks to Breakwater Books for providing me with a copy of the book for review!