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Retrospective: Dancing Jack by Laurie J. Marks

3 min read
Dancing Jack cover

DANCING JACK, by Laurie J. Marks, was published in 1993. Mab Morris looks back at this interesting work.

For ten years, Ash, to the best of her knowledge the last survivor of her family, has farmed her ancestral lands, trying in vain to forget her past – a past filled with bloodshed and rebellion when she became a pivotal figure in an ill-fated uprising against a repressive regime. Learning that her nephew may yet be alive, she feels compelled to search for him, for he may prove the heir to her family’s power – a magical talent passed from generation to generation. But the joy of finding her nephew is short-lived. For when he, too, becomes embroiled in a rebellion which can only end in violence and massacre, Ash’s own long-buried secrets rise up to haunt her. She knows that only she can turn the tide of history. But first, she must lay the ghosts of the past to rest and reclaim the special powers which are hers by birthright.

There are always requests for LGBTQ writers, and I’ll admit I was hard pressed to find one in the past. And it’s my bad, because the writers who did the work were so good that I didn’t notice. With Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Laurie J. Marks’ Dancing Jack, my early days of genre were subverted by two greats. Most know of Ursula K. Le Guin, but not everyone knows Laurie J. Marks.

Let’s just set the field. I grew up before LGBTQ and alternative works were as visible as they are now, but they were not unavailable. What I had was an open mind and Le Guin and… Laurie J. Marks. I don’t hear as much about Left Hand of Darkness as some of the other books we had, but it was on the high school reading list. Regardless of how unknown it seems to be now, I think Ursula’s fame will carry that through and the brilliance that brought that book forth will always shine.

Lesser known is Laurie, and Dancing Jack. I love her work for the subtle mystery. She wrote what was alternative relationship so well that it was never something to point at. It was only part of the book, but the plot was more important. Maybe that was her skill. I didn’t focus on the relationships. I focused on the world building, the mystery, the dancing jacks.

I still have trouble labeling the interpersonal relationship as things we’re supposed to label now. That Ash loves a woman is so unimportant to what happens in the story, because it’s valued as equal to what anyone else would write with Girl and Guy relating. That skew had nothing to do with forwarding the plot, it just was.

What is perhaps brilliant about this is that Laurie wrote it during the height of the AIDS crisis. And her narrative made never-you-mind to that. It was a story beyond that. It was a piece of fiction that had an eternal mystery to it. It was and is why I loved that book, that story. It went beyond the labels of Lesbian, Gay, Whatever and just WAS. The characters in Dancing Jack just were who they were, and they responded how they were and without apology.

During a time where here might have warranted a good deal of apology and defense, Marks created a world and a book that did none of that. And during a time—now—where people area asking for that kind of work, those kind of authors, I can’t but think they ought to look towards an unacknowledged great, who did it well, and brilliantly, long before it was called for.

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