Dancing on the Edge of the Roof
by Sheila Williams
(One World, $12.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-345-45930-X
****
Juanita Louis is mad as hell and she’s not going to take it anymore.

Juanita lives in the projects in Columbus, Ohio, and has journeyed only to what is accessible via the city’s public transportation system. From her job as a hospital nurses’ aide, she supports a 13-month-old grandchild and three grown children - one in prison, one headed there, and one going nowhere fast.

One day, a bag of romance novels that belonged to a recently deceased patient is left behind. Intrigued by the covers that depict couples in love, the thrice married/thrice divorced Juanita picks one to read. She buys a dictionary to look up the words she doesn’t know and soon she has completed her first book - ever. Juanita, who barely finished high school, is empowered by her accomplishment and reads more.

When Standing on the Edge of the Roof opens, Juanita has been reading all types of books for more than a year and has been keeping a journal. She has a new notebook - a pretty paisley one - and an expensive pen. Much too expensive, she decides, to be used to chronicle the details of her life. “...you can't write the story of a ninety-nine-cent life with a three-dollar-fifty-cent Parker pen.” Rather than abandon her writing, she sets about to increase the value of her experiences. As a child, Juanita liked the Sweet Pea character in the Popeye cartoons who gathered up his belongings, ran away from home and had an adventure or two along the way.

Juanita decides to do what any responsible, 42-year-old woman in her place would do. She decides to run away from home. Her relatives think she’s crazy, not to mention selfish. Taking a small nest-egg, two pawnshop suitcases, a food cooler and lots of gumption, Juanita soon finds herself at the Greyhound station with a map-load of options.

“My tote bag was full but not with novels. I was leaving them at home. I had packed spiral notebooks and pen refills instead...I was going to write about my own great adventure.”

She chooses Montana as her destination, her great adventure begins. Juanita arrives in Paper Moon, Montana - population 1,000 - a town she picked because it shared the name with a song that made her granddaughter laugh.

The first order of business is to find a meal and she steps into the local diner and finds a French menu that neither serves what she wants nor allows for substitutions. Juanita’s hunger and attitude set off a funny confrontation with diner owner Jess Gardiner that is reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s classic scene in Five Easy Pieces. Jess issues a “cook-it-yourself” challenge Juanita is hard-pressed to refuse. By the end of the day, she is the diner’s new short-order cook.

Juanita takes up residence in a haunted bed-and-breakfast/boarding house. Her landlady has made peace with her own personal ghosts - from the one who inhabits the house - to a bevy of cats she claims are reincarnations of her late husbands.

Her cooking skills and revamp of Jess’ stuffy menu makes her welcome addition to an amazing cast of Paper Moon’s small-town characters. As the only African American for miles around (Montana’s total Black population is only .03 percent), she’s also become something of a tourist attraction - much to her annoyance. But she is happy preparing meals for people who appreciate her efforts.

Sheila Williams’ debut novel, Dancing on the Edge of the Roof, takes its title from a quote by Wilma Mankiller, the first principal female chief of the Cherokee Nation. It is a funny, poignant and thoughtful story featuring grown-up characters who understand the burdens of maturity as well as its pleasures. Dancing on the Edge of the Roof is a delightful tale of courage, choices and setting goals. It is also a story of love, friendship and self-esteem. And yes, TRR readers, it is an example of how reading romance novels helped change one woman’s life.

Williams has crafted a wonderful heroine in Juanita. In telling Juanita’s story, the author doesn’t dwell on each scene nor does she emphasize the pathology of her life in Ohio. After more than 20 years as an enabler for so many people, old habits die hard and she often second-guesses her decision to leave Columbus. Juanita is a work-in-progress. Having spent most of her life in a densely populated city and congested public housing, Juanita is agoraphobic. She initially is terrified by Montana’s freedom, tranquility and expanse.

Jess Gardiner’s character is a perfect complement to Juanita’s. He is a study in contrasts. Jess is a strong, verbally economic Lakota Sioux Vietnam veteran who wants to prepare French cuisine in the middle of Montana. He has his own share of demons and is running away at home. As their relationship develops, they come to terms with their issues together. Paper Moon has a wonderful cast of secondary small-town characters who play off each other well and who offer support. The author never lets us forget that this is Juanita’s story.

Dancing on the Edge of the Roof is a quick read that is excellent for a beach or in-transit read. It’s got a spot on my keeper shelf and I strongly recommend it.

--Gwendolyn Osborne


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