Do we ever really know our loved ones? What would it take to convince a reluctant person to commit to a permanent relationship…and would that motivation change with catastrophic life events?
Set in the arguably tumultuous late 1960s, with a framing story in 2003 (the year the book was published), this is a chick-lit tale of how one woman handles grief.
The main narrative begins with a tragic catastrophe, and ends (back around at the book’s beginning) with the love that ought to have been there all along. Iris Chisholm believes her marriage a happy one and her husband a reliable worker and good provider…nope. She is called out of her classroom one day to be notified that her husband, Harry, has died as a result of ramming his car into a utility pole. To compound the natural grief one might be expected to feel under those circumstances, in the course of investigating what her financial resources are as a result of her spouse’s death, Iris discovers that her husband has not only been laid off three years earlier but developed a gambling addiction which resulted in debts large enough to require him to cash out his retirement funds, his life insurance and take out a second mortgage on their house. She is left not only widowed and penniless but deeply in debt.
Fortunately, the headmistress of the school where she is currently teaching knows of an opening which Iris might fill, at a rural school in Scotland. On the plus side, the job comes with a house, rent free. On the minus, it involves uprooting not only Iris herself but her two teenaged children…nevertheless, she believes she has to do it in order to keep her family together financially and emotionally without resorting to moving in with her mother-in-law, Iris’ only surviving relative.
Working as the “Missie”—sole schoolteacher of what is effectively a one-room schoolhouse in rural Scotland—proves a panacea to Iris. While she never fully fits in among the parents and adults in the town, who are suspicious of incomers, she draws out the reluctant and recalcitrant students, the shy, the disabled, the bullies. She wrestles the school district, with varying success, for improvements in the school lunches, the school supplies and furniture, and even enters her students in a swimming contest for the chance to improve upon the school’s nonexistent athletic facilities. Personally, she comes to befriend two of the local bachelors, a charming suave lawyer and a gentle, though unambitious, local handyman; much of the suspense is, however, taken out of this “will he? or will he?” subplot by the introductory chapter, set 35 years later, in which we the readers are informed in no uncertain terms who she picks and remains with.
The shift from an urban environment in England to a rural one in Scotland is a shock to Iris and her children alike, despite Iris’ background in the area. Iris manages the school reasonably well, though the community’s perception of her as “the Missie” proves discomfiting; it’s awkward for public service workers to be always in the public eye. The seemingly simple task of purchasing eggs, bread and milk at the local village shop takes Iris triple the time it does other village residents, as a result of the cavalcade of parents desirous of discussing their children’s shortcomings. Her children, Scott and Sophie, must struggle with the shift of leaving all their friends and the comparatively liberal social environment of the larger community for the leap back in metaphoric time involved in a move to a rural isolated community; Scott is suspended from school for refusing to cut his hair and Sophie, desperate for friends, paints graffiti on her school building. Just as Harry did before his death, the children hide the results of their actions in Scotland from their mother. Scott wanders neighboring towns, drinking in pubs, and becomes involved with a nearby woman whose husband has wandered off in search of more fulfilling protests and herb after their attempted commune never gets off the ground. (The Scots react to this proposed commune about as the residents of a similarly isolated rural American community in the late 1960s would.) Sophie retreats into an obsession with death, posing as if laid out for her own funeral, complete with coins on her eyes.
It’s a swift-moving book, with about as much characterization and plot development as one might expect from a well-written chick-lit novel. The book concentrates on character development and relationship building rather than plotting and action; the plot is indeed quite simple.
What to read next? The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaeffer came to mind as I was reading Dancing in a Distant Place, although I’m not sure why. The books’ formats are quite different: Schaeffer’s books is largely in epistolary form with lots of hints about the conclusion but nothing…well…conclusive, while Dewar’s book is a continuous third person limited omniscience narrative, with an introductory chapter which gives away the ending of the primary story arc. I’d argue that there’s an underlying subplot the two share: which suitor will the heroine select? will she select the slow-moving rural community or the suave sophisticate urban environment?