Leacock-winner’s characters warm-hearted at core

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February 4, 2014

Dance, Gladys, Dance

By Cassie Stocks

NeWest Press

300 pages; $19.95

By Joy Fisher

When 27-year-old Frieda Zweig answers an ad about a beautiful old phonograph for sale, she’s hoping to meet Gladys, who’s selling the phonograph because she’s giving up dancing and needs the room for baking. Frieda, in retreat from a broken romance and determined to give up her attempts to become a visual artist, hopes Gladys can show her how to lead a “normal” life.

Instead,  answering the ad puts Frieda in touch with the paranormal .  Gladys, it turns out, is a ghost, albeit a friendly one who has Frieda’s best interests at heart. When she answers the ad, Frieda meets an elderly but lively man named Mr. Hausselman, who teaches photography at the local art centre. “Mr. H.,” as Frieda soon comes to call him, offers her a room in his house at a price she can’t turn down. Thus begins an adventure that will ultimately lead Frieda on a path of personal growth.

Gladys and Mr. H are just two of many colourful characters convincingly drawn by Cassie Stocks—an accomplishment worth celebrating in the author of a first novel — which has won the 2013 Stephen Leacock Award for humour.

There’s Norman, Frieda’s ex, a well-meaning fellow who feels duty-bound to keep his promise to his dead father to manage the family’s string of porno shops; Norman’s mother, Lady March, who fancies herself a spiritualist but isn’t afraid to bare it all for a worthy cause; Ginnie, Frieda’s art school mate, who’s determinedly climbing the corporate ladder in the commercial art world; Mr. H’s son, Whitman, a Hollywood filmmaker who buys his best screenplays from Marilyn, a brilliant druggie who lives in a Winnipeg flophouse; Mr. H’s neighbour, Miss Kesstle who crochets incessantly and, though never married, has a solid maternal instinct; and a doomed girl named Girl who is the last of Gladys’s line.

It’s a little easier to understand how this novice author managed to create such diverse characters when you read her bio. No spring chicken when this novel was finally published, Stocks is described as “a biker chick, a university student, an actress, and a rich man’s gardener.” She had also worked as a waitress, an office clerk, an aircraft cleaner, had raised chickens and had even been the “caretaker of a hydroponic pot factory.” In short, by the time she wrote this book, Stocks had already lived a long and diverse life, and she clearly poured all of her experiences into her characters.

And almost all of them, in spite of their individual differences, eventually come to have the best interests of the others at heart. The book is set in Winnipeg and is imbued with all the solidarity and fellow-feeling of the participants in the Winnipeg General Strike. These characters eventually organize a sit-in on the roof of the local art centre when the city decides to sell the building to a chain store. They succeed in saving the centre, of course, and, in the process, weave a web of support for one another that’s also revitalizing for the reader.

And what of Gladys? Well, in the end, Gladys dances one more time while Frieda cheers her on, and then she disappears for good, but not before Frieda reclaims her own identity as an artist by getting out her paints to capture the dancing image on canvas.

“I hoped you’d do it,” Gladys says to Frieda, when she sees Frieda plying her brush once again. “Mission complete.”

This is not a profound novel, but it’s a warm-hearted one. I loved hanging out with the characters in this book.

Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bonnie Way February 5, 2014 at 7:57 pm

I really enjoyed this novel. As you say, Cassie creates a host of unique and quirky characters who were a joy to hang out with. This is a book that’s earned a place on my very full bookshelves and that I often recommend to my friends. 🙂

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