The Little Shadows
Canadian writer Marina Endicott’s novel is set in Canada around the time of the First World War. It tells the story of three young sisters’ struggle – the eldest is only 16 admitting to 18 – to make it in vaudeville after their father’s death leaves them with nothing to live on but their looks and not particularly outstanding talents. Theirs is an insecure, rootless world, travelling from town to town to perform in draughty and tumbledown theatres, where work is hard to come by and there’s no such thing as a fair wage or job security. It’s a world of sexual exploitation, hunger, booze and despair, but also of friendship, art and love.
Vaudeville people are different; we are constantly reminded of the divide between them, the “nomads”, and the audience, the “citizens”. The performers are set apart; they have the “taint of vaudeville” upon them. With her own background in the theatre, Endicott is the perfect guide into their world. It’s a tribute to the powerful, interior quality of her writing that you are fully immersed in that world. Her descriptions are so exact you feel as if it’s you standing in the wings waiting to go on, her characters so fully realised you share their thoughts and emotions, and you care what happens to them.
The vaudeville is more than just an atmospheric setting. It is “real life and ordinary beauty”. Real life is what the girls have to do to survive, the damage they sustain, the separations and disappointments they endure. The beauty is in the love that keeps them going, love of one another, their mother, lovers, art. The Little Shadows is an enthralling and insightful book, beautifully written, and highly recommended.