The Street Dancers by Elizabeth Starr Hill


I picked this up on a whim from the local Bargain Books years ago, and had forgotten I had it. Readable, to be sure! Though I’m reminded of the wheezy old joke about a kid who belonged to the circus who wanted to run away and join a normal home: Fitzi’s parents live a hand-to-mouth existence as mimes, working in plays and on television when they’re lucky, street buskers when they’re not so lucky….and all too often, there’s no work at all. Treats from Zabar’s when they’re flush, and tuna/coleslaw when they’re not, and never the certainty of whether they’ll be up or down for a day, a week, a month. Fitzi herself has always been part of this life, doing commercials, busking with her parents as one of the “Wolper Windups”. But now she’s hit the point that she wants a normal life. A life like that of the kids she sees outside at recess in the nearby public school. Though she enjoys spending time with her actor grandfather, and loves her parents, she wants out of the theatrical life.

As the story opens, they’re sub-leasing a third-floor walkup apartment in a slightly grubby building while a family of acquaintances is out on tour. It means a room for Fitzi, and even an avocado tree to water and love, but…. You knew there was going to be a but, right? As the book begins, her grandfather has a stroke, and cannot return to his life and job and home after he’s released from hospital. Fitzi’s aunt (mother’s sister) and her husband would like to take Clement in to their respectable home and stable life in Metuchen, but Clement prefers to stay with the Wolpers, close to the environment he’s known for most of his adult life. Used to fluency in movement and speech, Clement is frustrated by his new disability and dependency, and the slowness of his recovery. Fitzi, herself increasingly frustrated with the life she’s hitherto enjoyed, mostly, clashes with her grandfather. Though she finds friendship with a neighbor who goes to school with one of Fitzi’s friends now retired from show business, Fitzi’s increasingly embarrassed by her parents, to the point of fleeing in tears when her parents try to give her a treat by showing up, in costume and makeup, to the friend’s party at school. As this is an after-school special sort of book—though a well-written one!—Fitzi does get her wish, but realizes in the end that the lives of those “normal” kids does not always match the fantasy life she’s built up around the dollhouse her grandfather splurged on as a birthday gift for his beloved granddaughter. We find out near the end of the book that Karen’s family, idolized as ideal by Fitzi, is about to break up; the father’s been having an affair for some time.

As the book ends, Clement is back in hospital, after suffering another stroke while Fitzi’s parents are performing in a matinee. It is she who had to get help, and wait with him in the hospital while Pip tried to get hold of the Wolpers at the theater.

The Street Dancers is more than slightly bittersweet: you (tweens) aren’t the only ones who are lonely, the only ones who have doubts, fears and regrets or who have gone through what you’re going through, and perhaps most dismaying of all, all these doubts and fears do NOT end with some magical transformation into An Adult.The author makes clear that Fitzi’s parents have worries of their own, but love the life enough to continue, despite the financial concerns and uncertainty. And like all afterschool specials, the lesson to take away is: make the best of what you can but where love is, happiness can be found. What to read next? I’d suggest something by Barthe deClements, perhaps, or Judy Blume; both authors are a bit dated, true, but then if the child liked this, now twenty-five years old, chances are they’d like other books rom that timeframe.

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