Loosely based on the life of her grandmother, Jill Caugherty’s WALTZ IN SWING TIME captivates from the opening passage, a witty assessment of 89-year old Irene Larsen Stallings’ current situation; she’s been relegated to a “way station for the frail”, otherwise known as an assisted living facility. She and her geriatric “girlfriends” traffic in gallows humor and commiserate about an acquaintance’s recent move to the nursing wing, where she is to undergo that “final slog of indeterminate length”. But Irene has one last trick left up her sleeve; she is going to tape record her memories, “lay down the facts of my life and make sense of what they amounted to, added together.” And suddenly, the reader is transported back to another time and place, the farmhouse of a Mormon family in Paradise, Utah at the beginning of the Great Depression.
Caugherty’s prose is simple, beautifully so; she spends little time and energy on telling the reader how to feel about the utter devastation of this time period, instead etching the slow tumble into ruin in small, poignant passages: a father confessing that he’d withdrawn money from the bank and stored it in a homemade safe chained to the bedroom floor; a starving hobo devouring a peach; the painful loss of a piano, sold for survival. Irene Larsen is a well-drawn protagonist; passionate, mercurial, fiercely protective of her family, but longing to escape their way of life. Seen through her eyes, the other characters are fully three-dimensional, even Irene’s mother, Hannah; as harsh as she is to Irene, we still feel her devastation at the loss of her youngest son to scarlet fever and her satisfaction at being able to provide a precious nickel for her daughters to share one ice cream soda. And Irene’s beau, Harold “Spike” Stallings, is a delight on the page, full of quips and whiskey, a true match for our heroine.
It’s remarkable that one wishes WALTZ IN SWING TIME was actually longer; we want to know more of Irene’s life on the stage, her many years with Harold, her children’s lives. There is a sweet subplot with Irene’s granddaughter, Amy, the family member with which she has the most in common, and her conduit to a tiny bit of immortality. The real-life Amy, writer Jill Caugherty, has beautifully captured the life of a simple, but remarkable woman, and her love and admiration shines through on every page.
Visually lush and emotionally stirring, Jill Caugherty’s WALTZ IN SWING TIME takes the reader on a journey into the bittersweet past of passionate, talented Irene Larsen, a girl who comes of age during the Great Depression and manages to survive it by her wits.
~Shari Simpson for IndieReader