________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number . . . .February 17, 2017


Spin the Sky.

Jill MacKenzie.
New York, NY: Sky Pony Press (Distributed in Canada byThomas Allen & Son), 2016.
361 pp., hardcover & Ebook, $26.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-5107-0686-6 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-5107-0687-3 (Ebook).

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Joan Marshall.

*** /4



Elliot grins. "So, that settles it. Let's just watch Magnolia dance, while you think about how you want your own life to play out. Sound good?"

The cameras swoop to the front of the stage. Elliot sits up straight. Pauses dramatically. "Magnolia Woodson. Please take center stage."

I touch my collarbone to make sure my pillowcase piece is still there. Pulling me back. Pushing me forward. And then I walk out to the middle of the stage and turn around so that my back is to the judges, so that I'm facing that huge damn screen.

George slinks off stage. I stare at him as he slides on past me, but I doubt he can see the fire speeding from my eyes to where he stops and stands in darkness. Next to him Jacks gives me a sarcastic two thumbs-up while next to him Hayden's smile is paralyzed. But Rio. With sincere eyes, Rio mouths the words, "Break a leg."

I whisper back to her. "If I don't break my own out here, Iím definitely going to break his."

I bow my head and wait for my music.

A million images flash through my mind, none of them clear, but all of them fighting to be. Clamming with my mother. George on our beach. Rose and the clam gun. The money and the names and the drugs and her body her body her empty body, leaving my home, never to return.

I take one gigantic deep breath and close my eyes.

I know why I'm here. To beat George's lying traitor ass.

And to dance myself clean, too.


Eighteen-year-old Magnolia and her twenty-year-old sister struggle to survive in the small town of Summerland, Oregon, on the west coast where digging clams in the Season is bred into everyone's bones. Much of the population bullies them because, before she disappeared, their drug-addled prostitute mother led the mayor's daughter to her death by supplying her with drugs. While Rose beavers away at a retail job in Portland, Magnolia's days are consumed with dance and her long-term friendship with her dance partner George. George convinces Mags to travel to Portland to try out for the Live to Dance reality TV show. Mags enters wholeheartedly into the project, aiming to win over hundreds of applicants so she can prove to the nasty citizens of Summerland that she is not her mother, but instead a dancer worthy of respect. On the stage there, George tells her story to the audience without her permission, drawing the judges' interest but destroying the trust Mags had for him. In the dramatic weeks that follow, George and Mags and the other accepted students have to learn modes of dance with which they are not familiar and demonstrate to the judges that they are worthy of being chosen to be on the TV show. Cameras follow the students everywhere, recording their every move, while, week by week, dancers are eliminated, sparks fly and drama prevails. During her final dance, Mags hurts her left foot, breaking 12 bones in it. Her sister Rose appears at her side, and she and George get Mags to the hospital. George wins the contest and will go on to national fame. His dancer friend Mark from Summerland comes to the hospital to declare his long term love for Mags and convinces her to come with him to the California Ballet School in San Diego, to leave Summerland and its bullies behind and begin a new life. As Mags and Rose contemplate leaving the only home they have ever known, George reconciles with Mags, and they remain good friends.

     Mags' inner life is an emotional rollercoaster because of the rumours and innuendo that swirl around her in the face of her mother's actions. Although Mags remembers loving her mother dearly, her memories don't exactly coincide with the reality of Rose's memories, and Mags fights to understand how her mother could have chosen drugs and prostitution over her daughters. Every day, Mags tucks a piece of the pillow case she and her mother shared the day her mother disappeared into her clothing to remember that her mother did indeed love her. George and his loving mother, Mrs. Moutsous, along with dancer Mark have always supported Mags and Rose, but the rest of the town is alternately vicious or predatory. Mags' self-esteem would sink to zero if she didn't have her success at dance to sustain her. During the intense TV coverage of the competition, Mags is able to pull herself together because of her fierce desire to succeed and because she connects with the other competitors, all of whom have their own problems, beside which some of her own problems seem controllable. By the time of her accident, Mags is ready to move on in some way, to let her damaged mother go and to take on new challenges.

     The electric George, the other main character in this book, has prodigious dance skills, a chiselled handsome body, and understanding beyond his years. His ambiguous sexuality confuses Mags who would like to label her life to control it. Because he and Mags have been close as children and teenagers, Mags wonders if he could possibly love her, a thought she finally gives up as she observes his erotic behaviour with other young men. But then George seems to adopt one of the other female dancers as his girlfriend, an action that enrages Mags. George's solid, protective behaviour wraps around Mags many times as he saves her from the creepy cop who would like to use her sexually, and he sacrifices his chance at success by taking Mags to the hospital. His on-stage betrayal shows how far he is willing to go in the dog-eat-dog reality show competition.

     The other dance competitors are well-rounded secondary characters whose personal problems range from coping with the dance fame of a grandmother, to the ruthless competitive mother, the extremely sick sibling, homelessness and self-anger. Mrs. Moutsous is the loving, calm mother figure Mags never had who, in the end, convinces her to leave her own hurtful mother behind in order to move forward. The story of Chloe, the social worker at the shelter where Mags takes refuge, shocks Mags to the core as she wonders what it means to be a good mother and if abuse can ever be forgiven.

     The pace of the novel is relentless, skating easily along telling just enough that the reader is never brought down with too many details but instead is drawn along with clues that lead in the end to a full understanding of what really happened. Dialogue is especially good, reflective of the language used by older teens today, often witty and raw. Social media dominates their lives while the ever-present cameras in the competition ramp up the drama. Mags' inner turmoil and self-reflection balance the off-the-end-of-the-scale drama of the dancing competition and the sleazy, manipulative judges. Both settings, the quiet, ocean-front clam-digging Summerland laced with the vicious prejudice of a small town and the frenetic, highly charged Portland TV reality game, are vividly done, reflecting the themes well.

     Some odd copyright errors (stewardess/flight attendant, words left out of sentences, cameramen/camera operator) should have been resolved in a novel of this quality. The theme of leaving home to reach for success dominates this novel. Both George and Mags believe that their families will not let them try out for the TV show, but they find that, in the end, both Rose and Mrs. Moutsous support them wholeheartedly. Mark realizes how necessary it is to both Rose and Mags to leave Summerland behind, and so he pushes for their co-operation in that plan. All the other dancers have come from across the US to stretch their dancing skills beyond their home communities.

     The theme of Mags' growth and coming of age to an understanding of who she really is will resonate with all readers, while the small town prejudices and big business manipulations will have readers nodding in exasperation.

     The dance scenes in Spin the Sky are truly amazing: rich, complex and fascinating. All dance students, either boys or girls, will be completely gripped by the tension and drama of preparing dance sequences and attempting to master different dance forms.


Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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