A debut historical novel details the life of an early 1920s vaudeville starlet whose career was tragically cut short.
Rees bases her story on the real-life tale of her great aunt, who was a big name in San Francisco’s vaudeville scene. Ruby Adams has a tough upbringing, living in a shantytown after the earthquake of 1906, but through pure charm and panache is able to build herself up into a local star, loved by San Franciscans as one of their own. At the outset of the novel, she’s in the middle of a successful run at the Strand Theater, set to marry the wealthy John Davis, a popular bootlegger, and about to make her move into the burgeoning film industry. One night, though, tragedy strikes, as a falling sandbag backstage strikes Ruby, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. The rest of the tale follows the aftermath of the accident, as lawyer Charles Brennan constructs a case against the theater and its proprietors in order to recoup the potential income that Adams has lost. Arrayed against Adams and Brennan, though, are some sketchy characters—a few with connections to the city’s Mafia. Morris Markowitz and Moses “Moe” Lesser, the owners of the theater, hire the bombastic Col. Herbert Choynski to head up their defense team. Most of the latter half of the book focuses on Brennan’s and Choynski’s moves and countermoves before the trial. The tale eventually culminates in the dramatic courtroom finale. The work is clearly a labor of love, full of little historical details about the time and place that make it clear Rees has thoroughly researched her family’s story. The characterization and plot are somewhat simplistic, however—the players are either wholly admirable or malevolent, and readers rarely see the better or worse sides of them. This lack of nuance somewhat saps the yarn of suspense, as it seems impossible for Adams to lose a case against such monsters. But to Rees’ credit, the tale sticks to the history and delivers a murky and unexpected ending. Historical buffs and lovers of the stage should find something to like in this account.
An engaging showbiz and courtroom drama, hampered by underdeveloped characters.