The main character is Ruby, a fifteen-year-old girl who works at a packing house putting pigs feet into brine. She had a normal childhood until her father died. After that tragic event, she and her mother moved to a small apartment. To support them, her mother worked at the packing house until her arthritis became too painful. Ruby then dropped out of school and accepted the job to survive.
Ruby’s friends continue to attend school and enjoy the frivolity of being carefree teenagers. For Ruby, weekends are her refuge because she can go dancing with her friends. She is the best dancer in Chicago, even if she smells like brine. At one of these dances, Ruby meets Paulie, a boy from her neighborhood who may be connected to a murder and other crimes. Paulie is incredibly good-looking and is impressed by Ruby’s dancing. He suggests that she apply for a job at the Starlight club to teach dance lessons.
Ruby, however, knows that her mother will not allow her do so. Paulie continues to persuade her by telling her that the job pays $50 a week. Her job at the packing house only pays $12 a week. Ruby goes to the Starlight, lies about her age, and is awarded the job. She quickly learns that she will not be teaching dance lessons, but spending time with men in the club. She is not a prostitute, but her job requires her to do some things that are outside of her comfort zone and for which her mother would be ashamed.
Ruby learns that going out with the men after the dance hall closes is the way to earn more money. She receives nice dinners, jewelry, clothes, and cash. She also begins dating Paulie. Her mother would never approve of this behavior or her boyfriend. A few months later Ruby’s mother remarries, which provides Ruby with the opportunity to return to school. At this point, Ruby is living a glamorous life well beyond the limited cares and reach of a typical teenager.
Ten Cents a Dance is a well-researched and well-paced story. Reviewers admire Fletcher’s depictions of Chicago nightlife in the 1940s. The author offers an inside look at a small segment of an interesting, dynamic era.