Dancing In a Jar by Adele Poynter

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!


47 thoughts on “Dancing In a Jar by Adele Poynter

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks Melissa! It’s nice to read them from time to time – they always make me feel like I’ve gone back in time. 🙂

  1. JacquiWine says:

    “A quiet, gentle epistolary novel” – sounds like my kind of read. Fascinating to hear that it’s based on a true story – I guess it must add an extra layer of poignancy to the narrative. Lovely review, Naomi.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks, Jacqui! I personally love the fact that it’s based on a true story. It always makes me want to know more about the people, including all the secondary characters. You could even notice a difference between the 2 sets of parents (Don’s and Urla’s), which I thought was interesting.

    • Naomi says:

      I love books based on true stories, and this was no exception. It must have been a true ‘labour of love’ for the author!

  2. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I’m reading a quiet epistolary novel, too, at the moment, and it is so comforting, even though bad things will happen there as well. Did you find yourself wishing people today would write more letters? That’s how I feel. You are going to turn me into quite a CanLit wannabe reader because now I have to add this one to my wish list, too.

    • Naomi says:

      Comforting is the perfect way to describe epistolary novels (at least the ones I’ve read). I always feel like I’ve gone back in time to the days of snail mail. And, yes, it makes me wish we all still wrote letters. I also think historians someday are going to be missing out on a significant way to learn about the past.
      Now I’m curious to know what you’re reading…. I don’t remember seeing it on GR, but I haven’t been on it much the last few days.

      • TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

        The book is Letters from Skye, and the letters are going from the US to a little island in Scotland. It’s the perfect book to read at bedtime. You can say so much more in a letter than in a tweet. 😉 Which reminds me… I was happy to see you on Twitter now.

  3. Bina says:

    Newfoundland! What a great setting. I like the sound of this one, I enjoy epistolary books, I need to read more. Have you read Ella Minnow.Pea? Also, love that cover, hortensias (is that the English word?) are among my favorite flowers 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I feel like the cover doesn’t really reflect the story, so I’m glad to hear that you like it!
      Now I will have to go check out Ella Minnow Pea – great title!

  4. Read Diverse Books says:

    You really love your historical fiction, don’t you?
    I like the sound of this one too. Urla seems like an interesting character and it must have been rewarding to witness her growth as a person. I love the last passage! I assume it’s Urla? It seems like a great way to catch a messy persons’ attention. But it may not work on everyone…I know one person in particular who doesn’t care if I leave his socks in the same place for a week. 😡

    • Naomi says:

      I know people like that, too. The good thing about the fact that our dog likes to eat socks is that it has kept the dirty socks off the floor! 🙂 (The bad thing is that he likes to eat socks.)

  5. areaderofliterature says:

    What a beautiful, glowing review. I love tender and gentle stories so I’ll keep an eye out for this novel.

    My favorite thing about your blog is the variety of your reading. So many books I have never heard of!

  6. The Paperback Princess says:

    I used to really dislike epistolary novels. But at one point, they started to grow on me. This one sounds really good! I know next to nothing about Newfoundland so maybe this would be a good way of dipping my toe in!

    • Naomi says:

      I find you have to be ready to slow your reading down when reading epistolary novels – all those dates and addresses and different people the letter may be addressed to. They’re also in danger of becoming mundane with small talk about the weather, etc. This one didn’t have that problem. But maybe you’ve run into some that do!

  7. The Cue Card says:

    Seems like an interesting perspective on Newfoundland, which stuffs a lot into one book! By the way, guess who’s speaking at my public library this Friday? Michael Crummey and Chris Cleave. Oh my!!

  8. DoingDewey says:

    This sounds like my kind of book! I like epistolary novels to begin with and all of the things you mentioned liking about it are things that usually appeal to me.

    • Naomi says:

      If you like epistolary, than you couldn’t go wrong with this one. Really, the only people I can think of who might not be interested in it are people who don’t like to read about history or letters.

  9. cleopatralovesbooks says:

    This sounds absolutely delightful and I have enjoyed all the epistolary stories I’ve read – love the setting and the unusual love story and so to top that with the fact that it is based on real people – it has to be a winner!

  10. whatmeread says:

    Sorry, I’ve gotten a little behind on my blog reading. My husband had an accident a month ago and I’ve been struggling with trying to keep the household running and helping him ever since. But anyway, this one sounds interesting!

    • Naomi says:

      I’ve been having the same challenge here! My daughter broke her ankle last week, and it’s amazing how much extra time it takes to be her servant. 🙂
      I hope your husband is okay, and that he is on the mend!

      • whatmeread says:

        Oh, no! Yes, I can only keep the house minimally clean, what with waiting on Wayne and caring for the animals and taking care of all the things that seem to be going wrong with the house. Luckily, he’s beginning to get around a little better. Did they put your daughter into a boot? She should be able to walk in that. Wayne is just now beginning to be able to use his foot just a little bit, after a month.

      • Naomi says:

        She has a plaster cast, and it was just put on a week ago. So, she still has a ways to go. Maybe at some point, she’ll be able to put some weight on it. Glad to hear Wayne is on the mend!

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