The Life Fantastic
About the Book
It is 1913 and vaudeville is America’s most popular form of entertainment. Thousands of theatres and opera houses across the country host vaudeville troupes, including the Princess Theater in Brattleboro, Vermont. There, fifteen-year-old Teresa LeClair—who has a “voice like a nightingale”—remembers the thrill of singing onstage as a child. But her parents gave up life on the road, and her father has decided that Teresa, blessed with perfect pitch, should drop out of school and work in the tuning rooms of the local organ factory.
Determined to escape, Teresa wins an amateur singing contest in Vermont and steals away on the night train to New York. She hopes to become a star on Broadway’s “Great White Way.” She has no idea of the challenges that lie ahead, and her younger brother, Pascal (a budding juggler) complicates her adventure by stowing away on the same train. In the city, Teresa struggles to follow her dream and care for her brother, while fearing that her father will find them and force her to return home.
Luckily, a more experienced vaudevillian named Maeve—who performs with a troupe of circus dogs—takes Teresa and Pascal under her wing. She coaches them as they perform in two-bit, amateur night competitions. In New York, Teresa runs into Pietro Jones and his father, talented African American dancers who had also performed in Brattleboro. Teresa and Pietro become competitors as well as prickly friends. At a time when young black men could be lynched for simply looking at a white girl, Pietro understands, better than Teresa, the danger of their relationship. As they compete in one contest after another, Teresa’s father tracks her down in New York—and demands that she return with her brother to Vermont. Instead, Teresa slips away again, wins a place on vaudeville’s Silver Circuit, and travels west with Pietro, his father, Maeve—and the dogs.
Performing in Western cities and towns, their vaudeville troupe appears in five or six shows a day. They “jump” from one town to the next, sleeping on trains or in fleabag hotels. Every performer risks audience disapproval, which can cause a stage manager to give them “the hook”—and send them packing. As they travel, Teresa’s eyes are opened to the discrimination her black friends face on the road. She also learns, from Pietro, about a new movement for equal rights growing under the leadership of the great civil rights activist and writer, W.E.B. DuBois (at right).
Teresa’s friendship with Pietro deepens to attraction, even as they realize they could never be together. When Pietro’s father becomes ill and can’t perform, Teresa and Pietro sing a duet onstage—with dire consequences for their careers and their safety. Teresa’s struggle to find her voice onstage and in her life, far from the support of her family, takes place against a complex backdrop of American history.
Awards and Recognition
Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People 2018
"The Life Fantastic provides a fascinating window into the 1900s New York vaudeville scene, while examining the complexities of family support and expectations, as well as burgeoning black activism ... .Ketchum fits it together seamlessly and entertainingly. Her love of vaudeville shines through Teresa and her descriptions of 1913 Broadway, but she does not ignore the built-in limitations placed on people of color." (VOYA Magazine)
“Raised on the road with vaudevillian parents and gifted with a golden voice, young Teresa LeClair sets out to ‘shoot for the stars—or die trying’ in Ketchum's newest historical novel. A jam-packed ride through early-20th-century performance culture.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“The plot … provides much fodder for discussing race relations and the power of song. The script-style segments that open each part could be useful for engaging students in readers’ theater.” (Booklist)
“Vaudeville in the early 1900s makes for a thought-provoking setting for a tale of racial discrimination with direct parallels to today's issues. ... VERDICT Historical fiction, racial discrimination, a budding love story, and youthful characters make this a fine additional purchase for libraries with a large historical fiction fan base.” (School Library Journal)
“Ketchum weaves a gripping story of racial discrimination in the performing arts … Ketchum paints a vivid portrait of the difficult life of a performer and the indignities and prejudice endured by artists of color … .Lovers of theater and history will find a great deal to sink their teeth into.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Liza Ketchum creates a story as vibrant as the era itself … perhaps the greatest strength of the story is the historical accuracy tangible in the novel. Ketchum manages to capture the unique flavor and tone of the era of Vaudeville — the bond of shared dreams and challenges that connected performers as a family. A fun and quick read for younger teens.” (Teenreads)
“This was a unique, behind-the-scenes look at the vaudeville circuit … I love a good historical read, and I can’t advocate enough for these types of books that combine fiction and history in positive ways … to be required reading in our schools. Factual history books are important, sure, but if you can find a realistic character to empathize with … I think you’re going to be a more well-rounded person for it. Ketchum brought the 1910s NYC to life, using real songs and places to bring an air of authenticity to the novel.” (Forever Young Adult)
“Set at a time when vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment, Ketchum’s new read stars a teen whose beautiful voice takes her out of her family home to the great New York City. Filled with young dreams and the realities of racial discrimination, it’s a story that’s as relevant today as ever.” (Brit+Co)