Danceland Diary

24 November 2022

Danceland Diary
by Dee Hobsbawn-Smith
Published by Radiant Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$22.00 ISBN 9-781989-274828

‘Tis a wondrous thing to watch a writer’s oeuvre grow. I’ve had the pleasure of following Saskatchewan’s Dee Hobsbawn-Smith evolution as she’s published enviable books of poetry, short fiction and nonfiction—including the scrumptious Bread & Water: Essays—and now this hard-working writer’s earned another literary moniker: novelist. Danceland Diary, the award-winning author’s premiere novel, is saturated with poetic imagery, a juicy plot, and longing.

First-person narrator Luka Dekker’s been born into an off-colony Hutterite family that harbours dark secrets—indeed, keeping secrets seems an intergenerational trait for these “gypsy Hutterites,” and Luka’s got a dandy of her own. It’s been twenty-two years since Luka’s unstable mother, Lark, abandoned Luka and her sister, Connie, and moved to the west coast. The girls were raised by their grandmother, the matriarch Anky, and never saw Lark again. At eighteen Luka left her rural Saskatchewan life to attempt to find her beautiful and elusive mother in Vancouver. The timing of Lark’s disappearance eerily lines up with Robert Pickton’s murders of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Is there a connection?

Luka’s thirty when the novel begins. She has horticulture and botany degrees, and a seven-year-old son, Jordan. Anky’s dying, and Connie’s called Luka back to Saskatchewan to help care for her. Luka and her son are “just staying until Anky kicks her clogs.” Every generation of this family’s plagued by the secrets they’ve held close, but when Luka finds Anky’s journals and learns what happened to her grandmother at Manitou Beach’s Danceland on a fateful day in June 1943, the narrator starts snapping puzzle pieces together.

The novel’s part mystery and part history­—Luka “want[s] to know who [she] is”—and a quiet love story’s percolating on the side. Readers will root for Luka, whose lifelong search for her mother parallels a perennial desire for happiness. Fittingly, considering Luka’s education and dream of operating a market garden, Hobsbawn-Smith pays keen attention to what grows in prairie gardens and fields. Even her similes demonstrate this attention to flora, ie: at an old-time threshing demonstration, farmers’ wives are “relegated to the edge of the field like poppies,” a yellow lady’s slipper is a leitmotif, and at twelve, Luka “cut off [her] braids with the garden secateurs.” Food, too, gets spotlighting: these folks eat a lot of kuchen, and there’s the usual “sliced ham and coleslaw and homemade buns and squares and colourful jellied salads” at Anky’s funeral at the “old Hutterite country church” near the farm. I clearly see old Reverend Waldman at the service, “a faded, narrow-gauge man in a freight train of a tweed jacket two sizes too wide,” his voice “dissipating into the air like a spent train whistle.”

And what’s a proper prairie novel without descriptions of winter? “Hoarfrost like jewelry on tree branches. Smell of woodsmoke. Stars, the northern lights. The coyotes’ songs echoing like glass about to crack.” Fabulous.

My favourite scene concerns Anky’s wedding night consummation at the Bessborough Hotel. I read it and howled. Bet you will, too.


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