Set in the mid-1930s, Filthy Sugar tells the story of Wanda Whittle, a nineteen-year-old dreamer who models fur coats in an uptown department store, but who lives in a crowded rooming house with her hard-working widowed mother and shrewd older sister, Evelyn, in the "slums" behind the city's marketplace; a world where "death is always close but life is stubborn." Bored with the daily grind and still in shock from the sudden death of her father, Wanda finds both escapism and inspiration in the celluloid fantasies of the Busby Berkeley musicals, Greta Garbo dramas, and Jean Harlow sex comedies. Strutting up and down the aisles of Blondell's department store, her peep-toe high heels drumming out a steady beat on the waxed linoleum floors, Wanda fantasizes that she's Ruby Keeler, the tap dancing sweetheart from 42nd Street. But Wanda wants more than to wear a glamourous woman's coat--she wants to live inside of her flesh.
Her dreams come true after a chance encounter with the mysterious Mr. Manchester, proprietor of the Apple Bottom burlesque theatre. Suddenly Wanda is thrust into a world of glitter and grit. Descending from the rickety, splintered roof top of the Apple Bottom theatre on a red velvet swing, Wanda Whittle morphs into a dream named Wanda Wiggles; sweeter than a strawberry sundae and tastier than a deep dish apple pie. At the Apple Bottom she meets Lili Belle, a naughty cartoon flapper brought to life; Queenie, a sultry headliner whom Wanda feels drawn to like a bee to a butterfly bush; the sweet and salty Eddie, a drummer who thumps out his words like bullets from a machine gun and Brock Baxter, the Apple Bottom's vaudevillian comic whose apple cheeked, pretty boy exterior belies his sinister intentions.
All will have an impact on Wanda's journey. Cowardly boxers, shady coppers, dime store hoodlums, and painted ladies--Wanda will encounter them all! On her voyage from rags to riches and back again, Wanda experiences a sexual awakening and achieves personal independence as she discovers that a girl doesn't need a lot of sugar to be sensational!
About the author
Heather Babcock is an aficionado of Jean Harlow and pre-Code Hollywood films. She has had short fiction published in various literary journals and anthologies including Descant Magazine, Front & Centre Magazine, The Toronto Quarterly, and in the collection GULCH: An Assemblage of Poetry and Prose (2009). Her chapbook, Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards, was published in 2015. She has performed at many reading series including Lizzie Violet's Cabaret Noir, Hot Sauced Words and the Plasticine Poetry series and is a co-founder of The Redhead Revue and I Got You Babe: An Evening of Music and Poetry. She lives and works in Toronto.
Excerpt: Filthy Sugar (by (author) Heather Babcock)
Giggling, I remove the towel and turn to face the dressing room mirror.
Oh dear, God.
I stop laughing. I may be a little zozzled but at least I'm still sober enough to see that I look a fright. My hair, clumped and matted from the champagne, resembles a ginger squirrel with mange, while the black lash tint streaking my stark white face makes me look like a ghoul to rival The Phantom of the Opera.
I sit down at the vanity table and get to work. After wiping my face clean with cold cream, I tie my hair up with one of Lili Belle's silk scarves and apply a bit of Flame-Glo lipstick. Leaning back, I appraise myself: simple, yet glamorous. A vast improvement.
Standing up, I remove the sparkly dress that Lili Belle gave me off of its hanger. The frock is a little fancy for a chop-suey date, but I don't want Brock to see me in an old Market rag. As I run my hands over the sinuous flimsy fabric of the gown, a warm sensation stirs within me and I remember Mr. Manchester's hands on this dress. His hands on me. How he had grabbed me as though it was the most natural thing to do--as though I belonged to him...
Slipping the dress over my naked body, I decide not to put on my cami-knickers.
"Gee, Miss Wanda, you sure look swell," Brock says to me over supper. "I usually don't like seeing a girl in a turban, but on you it looks elegant."
Blushing, I look down at my dish and try, unsuccessfully, to secure the precariously wet noodles between my wooden chopsticks.
"It's just..." I look up. Brock's pretty face is pinched with concern. "What's the matter Brock?"
"Well, Miss Wanda, I hope that you don't think that I'm rude for saying this..."
"It's just that I've noticed that you don't wear a, uh--well, a brassiere," he rubs the back of his neck nervously.
"That's because I'm a burlesque dancer," I put down my chopsticks, not bothering to hide my annoyance. "Or haven't you noticed?"
"I know that, but you're not dancing right now."
"Jean Harlow doesn't wear a brassiere," I say defensively.
"No, but Jean Harlow is a little, uh, well she's a little bitsmaller than you are."
I push my chair back and stand up.
"I don't want to embarrass you, Brock. Maybe I should leave."
"Wait, Miss Wanda," Brock reaches for my arm. "Please don't be sore. I didn't mean to offend you, honestly I didn't. I'm sorry. Please stay." Slightly mollified, I sit back down. I poke at my food, refusing to look up at him. Across the street, a woman exits a bar wearing nothing but a long thin coat over a pair of step-ins. Her mouth hangs open, revealing a row of teeth like bashed in window panes.
"Miss Wanda, please believe me when I say that I love the way you look. I just don't love the way that other fellas look at you."
"Mr. Manchester pays me so that 'other fellas' can look at me." I say, my eyes still turned to the window. I can't tell if the woman is laughing or screaming.
"Mr. Manchester," Brock spits out his name in disgust. "Please don't mention that masher, unless you want me to lose my appetite."
"He's not a masher!" I exclaim, turning angrily to Brock and he laughs.
"Of course he's a masher, honey! Everyone at the Apple Bottom knows that. Say," his voice grows serious, "he's never laid a hand on you, has he?"
"No," I look down at my lap, my face burning.
"Good. You don't know how glad I am to hear that."
"Mr. Manchester doesn't fraternize with his dancers," I mumble, not meeting Brock's eyes. "He's a professional."
Brock laughs again. "Oh, he's a professional, all right! A professional cad!" He reaches across the table and takes my hand in his. "You're so innocent, Miss Wanda. I think that's what I love most about you. You're soft--not like the other dames at work who are all so hard-boiled."
"You don't seem to like showgirls very much." I snatch my hand away.
"Oh, but you're wrong, Miss Wanda!" Brock's large painted-doll eyes look up at me imploringly. "Why, my own mother was a showgirl!"
"On the level?" I ask incredulously.
"You know it! My mother was a hoofer and my father was a comic. Honey, I was born in a trunk!" He smiles at me charmingly, bringing to mind the sweet boy that I had met on my first day. I feel my anger starting to melt away and I'm happy for it, because I really do like Brock.
"That's how you became a comic?" I ask. "Because of your parents?"
"I didn't have a choice," Brock pushes his now empty plate aside. "Show business is my family's business. At least the Apple Bottom is a regular gig." He puts his elbows on the table and rests his face between his fists thoughtfully. "I love my parents, but I don't want my own kids to grow up like I did--eating candied fruits for supper, going to bed at four a.m., finding out about the facts of life behind stage door left--that's no life for a child. Or a wife," he looks up at me bashfully.
"If you don't want to be a comic," I begin to ask, ignoring the meaning behind his last sentence, "then what do you want to do?"
Brock takes my hand again. "I'd like to be one of those newspaper men. A reporter," he says and then smiles. "I've never admitted that to anyone else before."
"I'm flattered that you told me, Brock."
"I think I'd be really good at it," he continues. "I write my own material at the Apple Bottom. I could do a helluva lot better than that snotty Mr. Fingerhead."
"I think you'd be a swell reporter, Brock, but I don't really like newspapers. My sister Evelyn says that if you're searching for the truth, you should look for it in literature, not newsprint."
Brock wrinkles his nose in disgust. "That doesn't make any sense. No offense, Miss Wanda, but your sister doesn't sound too smart."
"Oh, she's very smart! Evelyn is the smartest person I know. She's read every book at the public library. Every book. Some of them she's even read two or three times."
Brock takes a sip of his tea. "Well, I guess some of them books have strange ideas then."
"I don't know," I say. "But Mama's worried that Evelyn might be becoming a Red."
At this, Brock's pink face turns scarlet. "Reds!" He exclaims hatefully. "Your mama should be worried. Those commies are plotting to destroy the country! And they're sly, too! Why, I found one of them union fellows chatting up Dottie and Penny the other day. Trying to organize hoofers--can you imagine!"
"Evelyn says that it is important for working people to organize. That the only hope for prosperity and a quality of life for the working class is through unionization."
"That's a flock of salami!" Brock's face is now purple.
"Evelyn says that unions protect workers," I continue. "She says that they make sure that people are paid fairly and treated with dignity and respect."
"Well if your sister won't read the papers, Miss Wanda, you should at least." Brock shakes his finger at me across the table. "Then you'd know what monsters these..."
"Hi ya, kids! How's tricks?"
Lili Belle appears before our table, dressed to slay in a leopard-print bolero jacket and a matching beret cheekily worn on the side of her head. A nervous looking middle-aged man, his egg-shaped body threatening to burst the buttons on the vest of his three-piece suit, stands behind her. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Lili Belle winks at me. "Say, either of you got a snipe I can bum?"
"Wanda and I are just finishing supper." Looking like a huffy rooster, Brock pulls a package of cigarettes out of his suit pocket and tosses it to Lili Belle without glancing up at her.
"That's swell!" Lili Belle rips open the box and sticks one of the cigarettes between her plump pink lips. She leans across the table, motioning for Brock to light it. Her dress is cut very low and I can see that she also isn't wearing a brassiere. Reluctantly, Brock lights Lili Belle's cigarette and tosses the match into his teacup with disgust.
"When you're done," Lili Belle says, standing up. "The two of you should join me and Daddy Whipplebum at the Stone's Throw."
"What's the Stone's Throw?" I ask.
"It's a tea pad," Brock answers, his tone dark. He squeezes my hand and turns to face Lili Belle. "I don't think that Miss Wanda would feel comfortable in a sleazy joint like that."
"Why, the Stone's Throw ain't sleazy!" Lili Belle puts her hands on her ample hips in mock indignation. "Come on, you two, we'll have a swell time! It'll be a romp!"
"I've never been to a tea pad," I say excitedly. "Isn't that where you smoke reefer?"
Lili Belle winks at me again. "Whatever gets you hot, dearie."
"Please Brock?" I squeeze his hand back. "I've always wanted o try it."
"Then it's settled!" Lili Belle exclaims. "Two blocks down and then you turn to the left. We'll meet you there." She threads arms with her male companion. "Ring-a- ing-ding!" she cries as they turn to go.
"I don't think that I like Lili Belle," Brock says as he watches her leave. "There's something about her--I can't put my finger on it."
"And you ain't never going to neither!" Lili Belle shouts over her shoulder. Her laughter tinkles like a wind chime as the door shuts behind her.
"Filthy Sugar takes us to the mid-1930s, from the struggles of a working class slum, to the hustle and excitement on and off the burlesque stage. Here, we follow redheaded heroine Wanda Whittle's rise and fall from fame in a journey of self-discovery that reveals desires and reserves of strength she never knew she possessed. Erotic, compelling and full of richly textured characters, Heather Babcock's storytelling is equal parts moxie and poetry--tinted with the heartbroken nostalgia of memory and lost dreams; and sparkling with striking, evocative imagery. More than a backstage pass into this world, Filthy Sugar shines a light on the challenges faced by working class women. Dancing as fast as they can in order to survive, they must navigate the unapologetic misogyny and hypocritical social codes that govern their bodies and behaviour as they pursue their hopes, dreams and desires. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?"
--Cate McKim, Life with more cowbell arts & culture blog (lifewithmorecowbell.com)
"With the grit and desperation of the Depression, the forgotten man, the sassy dames and dirty little secrets sprouting out of dandelions, Filthy Sugar is a dream wrapped up in a sassy pre-code cinematic adventure and its heroine Wanda Wiggles is all the parts of a swell dame made up of a fine mix of Barbara Stanwyck, Thelma Todd, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell and Clara Bow. Heather Babcock has captured the pure essence of the 1930s with eloquent, colourful words that flourish across the pages. You literally feel as if you are part of the audience in the burlesque house, hooting and hollering as Wanda wiggles across the stage. You don't need to be a fan of pre-code movies to enjoy this wonderful debut novel."
--Lizzie Violet, writer, poet & spoken word artist. Nominated for and runner up for Best Spoken Word Artist, 2015 Now Magazine Readers Poll
"Filthy Sugar is so delicious it's positively sinful! Wanda Wiggles will take you to another time and place, but a place where love, lust, greed sex and power are just as heartbreaking and complex as they are today. Filthy Sugar was inspired the women of the Pre-Code period of Hollywood film, referring to the films that were made from 1930-1934, prior to the enforcement of the amended Production Code "to govern the making of motion and talking pictures" and Wanda Wiggles is a stellar female character of that time--she is a dame not to be messed with! Her heart is as soft as a kitten's fur but the claws come out when they need to! She's sensual, sassy and stunning and she isn't afraid to be her true self, even when that self lands her in some hot water. The dialogue and setting are pitch-perfect, demonstrating a great deal of research and love for the time period, but the author's voice never intrudes; the reader is fully engaged. I truly hope this exquisitely written debut novel will enjoy the love and attention it deserves. Superb, poetic and cinematic, Filthy Sugar will transport you into another world and you won't want to leave!"
--Lisa de Nikolits, author of No Fury Like That and Rotten Peaches
"Heather Babcock's novel, Filthy Sugar, artfully takes the reader into the Jazz Age of flirty flappers and boozy philosophers, an era which has always captivated me. Her vivid descriptions and strong use of language take you right into the action, and her knowledge and passion for the period are clearly vast. However, there is also sensitivity to her characters, and insights into human nature, which are timeless."
--Pat Connors, Toronto poet
"Heather Babcock's Filthy Sugar is both a sweet and saucy journey behind the curtain. Vicariously through Wanda's trials, tribulations and triumphs, we're taken through the tapestry of a difficult and opportunistic time. The characters are alive, and full of antique and vintage sentiments. The narrative is stark, romantic, and eloquent, while the dialogue all but inspires the crackling of a Victrola sound for every scene. A time traveled, tantalizing, and tumultuous tale, to be sure."
--Valentino Assenza, Co-Host/Co-Producer HOWL, CIUT 89.5FM
"Filthy Sugar is a real time-travelling excursion. Heather Babcock brings alive the era of Trilbys, hoofers and two-bit scriveners with vividness, imagination and striking description. A good read - and how!"
--Jeff Cottrill, writer, actor, journalist and spoken-word artist