Fiction Review by Justin Pfefferle

Marina Endicott, The Little Shadows (Toronto: Doubleday, 2011). Hardbound, 560 pp., $32.95.Little Shadows

Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows escorts the reader backstage, to the gangways and dressing rooms of vaudeville performers who toured North America before and during the Great War. The novel, set mainly on the Canadian prairies, follows the Avery sisters—Aurora, Clover, and Bella—and their mother, Flora, a former vaudevillian. Flora was recently widowed by her husband, Arthur. Left only with her daughters and a handful of possessions, she trains the sisters to perform to earn a living, while also raising them as girls who are emerging into womanhood. In what one of Endicott’s early minor characters calls the “roistering life” of vaudeville, Aurora (“‘Sixteen! But we say eighteen, of course’”), Clover (“not even a year younger”), and Bella (“thirteen, but sixteen, wink-wink”) had better grow up fast, or at least act the part.

The Little Shadows unfolds slowly, between January 1912 and July 1917, over some five-hundred pages. It demands the reader be patient with both the narrative and the girls. Patience opposes urgency, yet the Averys’ predicament is nothing if not urgent. They live hand-to-mouth at the beginning of their career, reliant upon back-breaking work, dumb luck, and the whims of the eccentrics who people their world. In Act One (the novel has four acts, plus an overture, intermission, and, naturally, a finale), the Averys work for scraps under old Gentry Fox. Fox, too, is plummeting toward poverty, and can ill-afford to pay the girls for their performances. As compensation, he submits them to rigorous training, shaping them into bona fide stars. The Belle Auroras delight crowds from Fort Macleod to Montana. They exist barely, uncomfortably, but they exist.

To survive in vaudeville is to impress those whom one must impress, and avoid those whom one must avoid. The girls acquire this wisdom with difficulty: Bella wanders off with a would-be rapist who tours as part of a physical comedy duo; Aurora naively falls for a caddish elocutionist who, predictably, loves her and leaves her. The Averys tether themselves to fellow performers who, they hope, can educate them and help them get by. The result, for the reader, is a playbill of richly conceived supporting characters, including the Sidewalk Conversationalists, East and Verrall; Sybil Sutley and the pathetic Julius Foster Koningsburg; Nando, the suffering son of a drunk and member of the Knockabout Ninepins; and Victor Saborsky, a “true artiste” who falls in love with Clover, then heads to the Front. As the novel develops, these characters reveal themselves as complex, flawed, and always sympathetic. They enliven the stage and the story; they make the girls’ lives difficult while also making them possible.

Necessarily, stage and real life intersect. This truism aids the Averys wherever they perform, whether to a crowd or a potential benefactor (and, in their circumstances, almost everyone qualifies as a potential benefactor). The vaudeville world is manifestly false, especially given the reality of the war. The stakes are nonetheless high, however, and while the shows may be a conduit of escape for war-weary audiences, they are real for those who subsist by them. On stage and off, the girls do what it takes. Improvisation, coy bats of eyelashes, emotion here, cold cunning there: all in the name of a better show. The performer plays by a different set of rules than the ordinary citizen, even (or maybe especially) during wartime. Discipline and tremendous talent allow the Avery girls to absorb these rules, and to perform successfully at crucial times in their lives.

In her acknowledgements, Endicott describes The Little Shadows as “a book of vaudeville.” Indeed, one of the pleasures of reading her work is that one learns a great deal about the history of the vaudeville circuits in Canada and the United States circa World War One. Meticulous research went into the novel; “everything in it,” she admits, “is stolen, stitched together backwards and upside down, shined up and sent back out to see how it will play.” Like its historical counterpart, the vaudeville of Endicott’s imagination is not without warts. Here, hucksters and snake-oil salesmen abound. In Act Two, the girls encounter Mr. Fitzjohn Mayhew, “that well-known impresario” who was “known to [Flora]” of old. Although he moves behind the scenes, he performs no less than the vaudevillians who command his stage. Unscrupulous and dishonest, Mayhew shams success. He is, in Julius’s words, “a crook.” When he exchanges material comfort for the body, if not the heart, of Aurora, he operates according to an ethical code that she understands. She “loved champagne, loved being in vaudeville, loved being the object of Mayhew’s attentions.” She views Mayhew as the family’s ticket to a better life. Aurora, like all vaudevillians, can afford sentiment only when it is to her advantage. At times glamorous, at times utterly hostile, the vaudeville world is one that thrills and corrupts.

The outbreak of war ushers into the novel a world of corruption exterior to the theatres and concert halls of the circuit. War encroaches upon the narrative gradually, even parenthetically. Introduced halfway through the book, “war,” we are told, “was imminent.” Newspapers soon contain “nothing but war news,” but the conflict in Europe—however devastating—impacts the Averys superficially at first. Victor’s mobilisation makes the war real, at least to Clover. The development of her character, from overlooked middle daughter to supreme talent, courageous lover, and dutiful, frustrated occupant of the home front makes her the protagonist of the novel in many respects. Her experience of the war mirrors that of the reader: the war, always present as an idea, takes place beyond the purview of all save for the unlucky inhabitants of trenches in France. Besides, the Averys endure their own private battles and tragedies. Bella’s attitude to the war—“she did not see that it concerned them”—makes sense when the rigors of living day-to-day collide with the black hole left on the imagination when one tries to think of what war might be.

The Little Shadows is much less a novel about war than a novel in war. The war provides more than a mere backdrop to the family drama, but the reader’s gaze remains fixed on the dynamic between the three sisters and their mother, whose life of sadness and disappointment continues to rub up against the genuine love that she has for her daughters. Ultimately, what makes Endicott’s novel about artifice so satisfying is its sincerity. We believe in the characters and the various, complicated relations between them, even as those characters all earn livings by playing at being what they are not. The deaths and broken bodies of men gone off to fight have a reality to which the world of vaudeville cannot aspire. Yet, as Victor sums it up near the end of the novel, “we are only pointing at the moon, but it is the moon.” Endicott’s dexterity as a storyteller encourages us, as readers, to extend this implicit theory about art to the novel itself. Her characters come to life, live with us, and then vanish off stage.

—Justin Pfefferle

As in The Malahat Review, 177, Winter 2011, 99-101