By Ekta R. Garg
June 4, 2014
Rated: Bookmark it!
In 1920s New York, a woman fights to keep her sisters safe from the world and their father. Their crime? Dancing in the underground speakeasies popular with anyone who wants to forget the day’s cares and enjoy a drink in the day of prohibition. But when the police raid one of the nightclubs where the girls go, suddenly their innocent pastime threatens to unravel their entire lives. Genevieve Valentine offers readers a new take on the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in her delightful novel, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.
Josephine “Jo” Hamilton spends her days trying to keep her sisters entertained. She’s not worried about the nights. Since Jo discovered dancing at the age of 10 and snuck out for the first time at the age of 19 to take her sisters dancing, the girls have spent almost every night dazzling partners across the floor and wearing out their shoes.
Jo didn’t ask for the responsibility. Growing up in the early twentieth century, she feels the acute pressure of the need for a male heir in the family. But though her mother seems to spend most of her time either pregnant or delivering babies, no boys come.
The years bring Jo sisters instead; eleven, to be exact. By the time their mother dies, Jo already knows that her father sees the girls as a burden. More than a burden, he almost demands that the girls spend their time shut in the house. He will not, he says, risk the reputation of the Hamilton name.
The girls resent their father’s boorish behavior, and when Louise (Lou) threatens to run away Jo knows she has to do something to keep the girls at home and keep them safe. Yes, they live in an unbearable situation, but if Jo keeps the girls together she can watch all of them. So she takes them dancing. In the beginning she only takes the three sisters who follow her in age—Lou, Doris, and Ella. But by 1927 all twelve girls make the nightly pilgrimage to the clubs.
They do their best to stay under the radar, but eventually the girls find themselves in the club on the night the police raid the place. The raid worries Jo; what happens if the girls get caught by their father? Things get complicated when one day their father declares that he has decided to find suitable husbands for the sisters, and Jo has a hunch that their father is suspicious about their dancing. They’ve done it for eight years; how can they give up their freedom for the drudgery of marriage?
Author Genevieve Valentine takes a familiar fairy tale and spins it in a completely different direction. The result is a book that conveys with every paragraph and every chapter the melancholy that main character Jo feels and that underscored a decade preceding one of the most difficult times in our history. Despite the melancholy, however, one thing shines through: the love the Hamilton girls have for dancing.
In a time when women had limited options for outings and even for expressing their opinions, the Hamilton sisters defy their traditional upbringing, defy the sense of caution all women were expected to retain in that era, and claim their independence with a ferocity that resonates even today. Valentine’s story transcends the decades and balances all of the elements of a good book while staying true to the fairy tale and her characters—a difficult task for any writer. Valentine, however, jumps in with as much eagerness as the Hamilton sisters get into their taxis to go dancing.
Readers will especially enjoy the asides, and Valentine includes several of them in every chapter. An unusual literary device, Valentine makes the asides as much a part of the era as they are a part of the girls. The asides also convey the girls’ view of their own lives—the time they spend at home during the day functions as an aside to the main thrill of their lives.
For the girls and the asides as much for the story, I highly recommend The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. By the end readers will sit up straight and want to hear Jo’s signature call: “Cabs leave at midnight.”