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May 21, 2013

Dance, Gladys, Dance by Cassie Stocks, 2013 Leacock Medal Award-Winner

dance-gladys-danceIn many ways, Cassie Stocks’ Dance Gladys Dance is the kind of book that tends to win the Leacock Medal for Humour (unlike The Sisters Brothers, which took the prize in 2012 and stands out for its gory darkness). It’s a folksy, Sunshine Sketches, Vinyl Cafe kind of book about good people and their weathered porch steps, about the eccentric woman next door who is devoted to her cat. There is a life-affirmingness to the narrative, coupled with biting lines that made me laugh out loud.

In one fundamental way, however, Stocks’ novel stands out from the other winners from over the last 66 years, or at least the other winners save the paltry five (5!) in the crowd which also happened to be books written by women. Last year, I kicked up a fuss when some of the funniest books by women weren’t included in the mix, and I was even more annoyed when the lone male writer on the shortlist ended up taking home the prize. And so this year when Cassie Stocks was awarded the 2013 Medal, I felt I had a responsibility to show my support for the book and its acclaim by buying it and reading it. Not the most arduous gesture either–how hard is it to read a book that’s funny?

It’s not all sunshine in Dance, Gladys, Dance. The novel deals with parental estrangement, prostitution, drug abuse, loneliness, and the undermining of women’s work and women’s art by society at large. Frieda Zweig is fed up with the whole thing and has decided to abandon her artistic dreams altogether. She has come home to Winnipeg with a new goal for herself–to hang up her paintbrushes for once and for all and learn how to live like an ordinary person instead. And though we’re rooting for Frieda right from the start, we’re quite aware that being ordinary is the one thing in the world she’s not capable of.

She answers an ad in the paper for an antique photograph for sale. “Gladys doesn’t dance anymore,” it says. “She needs the room to bake.” Seeing parallels between Gladys’ story and her own, she goes looking for Gladys only to discover there is no Gladys at all, but instead an elderly man with a room to rent. This situation works out quite conveniently for Frieda, and then Gladys starts showing up–it turns out she’s a ghost with a lesson to impart from her own experiences a century before, and there is something she wants from Frieda as well in exchange. In the meantime, the local arts centre is set to be closed and the community must rally around to save it, plus Frieda’s best friend has become a utensil thief. The woman next store is a compulsive crocheter, Frieda’s ex-boyfriend Norman (millionaire heir to a porn dynasty) has come to woo her back, bringing along his mother who’s busy reading everyone’s aura. And what of the homeless girl who builds boxes covered in tampon ads, and the drug addicted screenwriter holed up in a divey hotel who’s a Hollywood smash and doesn’t even know it? And Gladys herself? Does she ever get to dance?

Obviously, there is a whole lot going on here, and it’s often a bit too much, however amusing. The novel’s construction is more haphazard than precise, more elaborate and teetering towers than the firm foundation required to adequately address the subject matter at hand. We skim the surface of these stories, which seem more like sketches, and the people are more caricature than character much of the time. So yes, I’m criticizing a novel that’s just won a prize for humour for not being serious enough, which is a bit rich, of course, but I point it out only because the novel is reaching for depth but doesn’t quite manage to get there and there were times I wished it would.

Other times, however, I was quite content with Gladys as she is–light, smart and feminst, a stand-out in the crowd. Cassie Stocks demonstrates that the funny sisters are doing it for themselves.

3 thoughts on “Dance, Gladys, Dance by Cassie Stocks, 2013 Leacock Medal Award-Winner”

  1. Genevieve says:

    Don’t know if you’ll see this comment on an older post, but I’m looking for Canadian fiction (going to Toronto next month on my first visit to Canada), and I would love to know what other funny books by Canadian women you would recommend.

    I’ll get this one for sure.

  2. Genevieve says:

    I should’ve just followed your link to your previous year’s post – you’ve got a whole list of women there. Checking them out for books to buy / get from library.

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