I’m going to flat out admit I know very little about the Roaring Twenties. What little I do is mostly cribbed from still images and movies like Chicago. You know: jazz! Drinking! Dancing! More drinking! Guns! And did I mention drinking?
Not exactly what you might call a rigorous examination of an era that contained seismic changes in the social, political, and economic landscapes. The Great War changed everyone’s understanding of The Way Things Worked. Many old traditions died — sometimes because there was no one left to keep them — and new ones were created. The Spanish flu proved that disease respected borders even less than aggressive armies. The revolution in Russia made it clear that divine right was wrong, and the US moved into a position of real world power. Commoners moved into positions held previously by only the titled (or super-rich). Women, having kept industry running while the men were away being uselessly sacrificed, showed no desire to retire from the fields previously barred to them, and in fact began to demand more access. The world was suddenly smaller, more fragile, and more interconnected than ever before. And suddenly, shockingly, more elastic.
Eva Ibbotson and Simone St. James both have books set in that period, and one of the reasons I love them so much is because of how they detail in small, personal stories the cataclysmic upheaval of the Old World Order. But both Ibbotson and St. James were writing about Europe. When we think Roaring Twenties, we’re generally thinking about the US of A. So today I’ll take a look at two very different takes on the time period.
First up, Jenn Bennett. I’m going to cheat a little bit right of the bat and talk about two of her books: Bitter Spirits and Grim Shadows, the first two titles in her appropriately-named ‘Roaring Twenties’ series. Bennett is known for contemporary paranormal Romance, and Bitter Spirits and Grim Shadows fit well into that category… except, of course, for the contemporary part (interesting note: before the year 2000, the 20s were considered — unofficially, in RWA circles — the outer edge of the contemporary market. Now they’re historicals). Ghosts and magic run rampant through the series, though, so they’re definitely paranormal in nature, and Romances at heart. As an added bonus, they’re set in San Francisco rather than New York, which made for an unexpected change.
Bitter Spirits is the story of Aida Palmer and Winter Magnusson. She’s a spirit medium, a real one. He’s a bootlegger, one of the big players in the city’s black market. When a mysterious enemy plagues Winter with ghosts, he hires Aida to rid him of them. But what starts as a business relationship quickly becomes intensely personal. Aida and Winter are fascinated by and wary of one another, not only because of their respective professions but also because of the pitfalls in their own pasts. But it will take both of them working together — along with most of the bootleggers in town — to conquer the enemy bent on destroying them all.
Grim Shadows features archeologist Lowe Magnusson (Winter’s younger brother) and curator Hadley Bacall. Hadley has lived her whole life carrying a curse, a set of shadows that respond to her intense emotions with violence. The artifact Lowe brings to her father’s museum is connected to her spirits, though she can’t figure out quite how. But sinister forces are gathering around the object. One of whom is Lowe, who doesn’t exactly have the most innocent of intentions. But despite good reasons not to, including a intellect-annihilaing attraction, Lowe and Hadly begin to trust one another. And that just might save both their lives.
There’s a little bit of twenties-style ‘Mysticism Of The East’ going on in these books, but Bennett’s modern-day sensibilities keeps it from being too offensive. She doesn’t shy away from the injustices done to San Francisco’s Chinese population, nor from the consequences of Western appropriation of Egyptian history. But the focus of the books is romance, not history, and it’s on that level that Bennett really shines. Medium and criminal; rogue and academic: these are complicated pairings. They’re complicated people, who sometimes have trouble getting out of their own way.
I’m going to cheat a bit with the second author, too. Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls At The Kingfisher Club is not a Romance, though I’m shoehorning it into the column on the basis that A) it contains a love story (more than one, in fact), and B) I simply cannot talk about this book enough because it was so damned good.
You know this story. It’s the one about twelve sisters locked in a room by their father, who dance at night in secret. But you’ve never read it quite like this before. It’s 1927 in Manhattan. Rich Joseph Hamilton wanted a son. His wife died trying, having given birth to twelve daughters. Disappointed, Mr. Hamilton did his level best to ignore the girls, relegating them to the upper floors of his 5th Avenue mansion, and refusing to allow them to interact with the outside world, possibly in an attempt to pretend they didn’t exist.
Jo, the eldest, can remember their mother. She had a little schooling, and in her younger years had the occasional trip outside. More than any of the other girls, she knows what awaits young women with no worldly experience, money, contacts or education. To keep her sisters from fleeing — or from simply breaking under the strain of the isolation — she teaches them how to dance, and how to sneak out at night. By the time the story starts, the sisters are well known in the club circuit. Twelve girls, all of whom love to dance, who never give their names and are known collectively as “Princess”.
Their father’s neglect turns into active oppression. He has heard rumours of the girls who dance at night, and searches both for information and for husbandly candidates to take his daughters off his hands. And he is not the only danger: the clubs that succour the sisters are subject to police raids and blackmail. When their world is shaken right down to the foundations, Jo needs to learn what she can hold onto, and what she must let go.
Told in a spare, almost-but-not-quite breezy style, Girls At The Kingfisher Club is a masterful book. It’s told mostly from Jo’s point of view, though the other sisters each get their chance to speak. It’s about fear, love, loss, and growing up in ways that can sometimes be very hard. It’s about the way family bonds can drag you down into — or pull you right out of — the depths. It’s about freedom, and dancing, and learning to claim your own. It’s about sisterhood, that wonderfully dense and tangled relationship that carries so much weight.
It was a magnificent read, and reminded me again that there’s a reason we tell the same stories over and over again. Even if there’s no magic in it at all, except for the magic of a brilliant story told in extraordinary prose.
Right now, Chris Szego would trade her ballroom dance training for knowledge of the Charleston.