Carrie’s husband Bill doesn’t make an appearance in Sharyn Skeeter’s Dancing with Langston until near the end of the novel. And, when he does show up at the Harlem apartment of soon-to-be-evicted Cousin Ella, the reader’s ready to dislike him. Bill doesn’t disappoint.
“What the hell!”
Handsome, dressed in a white shirt, blue tie, tan blazer and navy slacks, Bill is an engineer who is clicking his way up the promotion ladder, a marriage partner who keeps a spreadsheet of the household’s finances, an African-American striver who is leaving New York the next day for his new job in Seattle where Carrie will have to find one of her own.
“What the hell!”
Bill says it a second time, and then, moments later, adds,
“What is this madhouse?”
He is upset that Carrie has failed to meet their appointment at a lawyer’s office to sign away her Greenwich Village condo to help pay for their move. Instead, Carrie is here with Cousin Ella, the 95-year-old woman she promised her dying father to move to an assisted living facility. It has to happen today because, tomorrow, a construction gang will move through the floor to clear, gut and renovate the apartments, the longtime homes of blacks like Ella, for young affluent professionals, most of them white.
Because of the move, Cousin Ella’s apartment is in chaos. Some rooms stink to high heaven due to faulty plumbing. And the people in the apartment are what Bill likes to call “circus acts,” i.e., a bit odd.
There is Ella, a former Parisian dancer with a brutal scar on her right cheek; her regal live-in lover Jack, also in his nineties; and three neighbors, already evicted, here to help with the move, a middle-aged woman, her 19-year-old pregnant daughter and the daughter’s collegian boyfriend.
Taking a break from the work, everyone’s danced the Lindy Hop to a record Jack put on, the women getting into the spirit by donning Ella’s 1920s dustily elegant clothes.
They’ve just finished the dance when Bill bangs on the door and finds them sweaty, dusty and smiling, instead of getting the work done on time.
Bill isn’t on stage very often in Skeeter’s novel, but this scene sums up the key tension of her thoughtful, many-layered and fun book — the choice between nose-to-the-grindstone success and creative expression.
Once Ella was scarred and could no longer dance at the Paris clubs, she returned home and settled into this apartment, never going outside because of her disfigurement. Nonetheless, she had a vibrant life with a wide range of Bohemian friends who not only paid her rent and brought her groceries but also attended her monthly salons, friends such as painter Romare Bearden, dancer Katherine Dunham, entertainer Cab Calloway and poet Langston Hughes. Also attending, unbeknownst of Carrie, was her father Doyle who, like Langston, was one of Ella’s cousins.
Ella has bookshelves full of signed first editions, photos of a Who’s Who of the Harlem Renaissance, and small canvasses by Jacob Lawrence and Lois Mailou Jones. Jack’s lived with her for many decades. But now, when they cannot stay, they are totally without financial or psychic resources to handle the change.
Bill would have said they’ve been improvident and are now paying the price for a wasted life.
That is the question that Carrie begins to come to grips with during her 24 hours at the apartment. And not only what it means for Ella and Jack, but for herself as well.
“Wind up like me”
In college, Carrie muddled through classes because dancing professionally was her passion. She was so passionate about dance that Bill dropped her as a girlfriend. Then, in an audition, she won a spot to lead a prestigious new troupe.
That dream, though, was snuffed out when her father convinced her to turn back to her studies — and to Bill — to able to support herself and find a similarly diligent and ambitious helpmate. Ella knew about this when it happened, and now tells Carrie:
“He didn’t want you to wind up like me. Poor, out of work, depending on relatives and salons with a donation bucket.”
For people like Bill, Ella and her friends have had poor life. But Carrie begins to see them from another perspective:
“The more I learned of them, as best as I could, the more I began to understand the joys and sorrows of their lives. And me? Compared to them, my life had been mostly flat…”
How much to risk and leap
Virtually all of the characters in Dancing with Langston are African-Americans, and the novel provides an easy-to-handle introduction to the history of the Harlem Renaissance. Yet, the questions it raises are pertinent and important for anyone of any age or race, particularly in this modern world when work often demands 24/7 availability.
Ella and Bill are extreme ends of the continuum, but each of us, like Carrie, has to figure out how much to seek the safe and secure and how much to risk and leap.
One last note: A subtle subtext to Skeeter’s novel is the gentrification of urban neighborhoods. At one point, near the end, Carrie has this thought: “I wondered who would enter the new doors [of the renovated building]. Would the new young residents sense the ghosts that would always lurk in these rooms?” That’s another good question.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review originally appeared at Third Coast Review on 2.25.20.