First there was silence.
Not the murmur of a library or the hush that overtakes a pub when the song cuts off and every conversation simultaneously halts.
This was Joan Haggerty’s silence, as noiseless as anything beneath that 100-kilometre threshold where the atmosphere thins into outer space.
And then, music.
Haggerty is the author of The Dancehall Years, a generational drama beginning in 1939 that swirls around Bowen Island, always returning to the dance hall of the title.
The book often feels as though the experiences have been lived rather than imagined. As the story begins we meet Gwen, a girl setting off for a summer on Bowen Island with her idealized aunt. The descriptions of turquoise water and the shadows of thimbleberry leaves and Neapolitan ice cream all feel like they’ve been transcribed from childhood photos.
“Yes, I did spend summers as a child there and we still have our cottage, but it’s still a novel,” Haggerty clarifies. “There’s a lot of me in Gwen, there’s a lot of me in all the characters, but …”
It’s a novel.
While Gwen is the protagonist, the book’s main character is the dance hall.
“Our family cottage was below the dance hall, and it was like a giant music box to me on the top of the hill,” Haggerty says.
The image stayed with her until Haggerty decided it would be a “wonderful locus to let the story spin off” from the hall.
“If you read it carefully, you’ll see that you’re constantly having do-si-dos and various attempts at ironic balancing situations between the various couples,” she says. “There’s dance steps throughout the entire book.”
During the interview, I mention just having started the novel and Haggerty immediately warns me that it “gets pretty rough.”
After we see Bowen at its most idyllic, we see the cruel aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In one moment we’re told Japanese people are being put into camps with scarcely more feeling than is used to discuss clam chowder with celery.
There were no Japanese residents on Bowen in the memories of Haggerty’s youth, the characters just sort of showed up while she was writing.
“I had to find out who they were,” she explains. “It’s as if I’m following these characters, in the sense that we do on Facebook.”
While the book has a historical basis for much of the action, Haggerty opted to part with reality in one crucial detail: while some of her characters come to harm, the dance hall survives.
The author is celebrating the launch of her book with a gathering at The Gallery at Artisan Square on Bowen Island at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 13.