They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy


9537951The depression of the 1930s led people to desperate measures to survive. The marathon dance craze, which flourished at that time, seemed a simple way for people to earn extra money dancing the hours away for cash, for weeks at a time. But the underside of that craze was filled with a competition and violence unknown to most ballrooms.


In the back of my head I knew that they had dance marathons back in the Depression. Back in the old days equals tame, right? Nope.

The dancers have to keep moving or they’ll be disqualified. For every 50 minutes on the floor they get 10 minutes to eat, sleep, wash up, and otherwise take care of themselves. A doctor, nurses, and trainers are on site but they’re more likely to throw someone back into the fray than disqualify them on medical grounds. If you faint you’re dunked in ice water. All of this gets you meals and a bed to crash in, only to be awoken by the smell ammonia a few minutes later. There’s a surprising amount of violence but it makes sense when you think of the sleep depression. Not to mention the crowd pressing in to watch.

I love books that provide an insight into something I was only vaguely aware of. The marathons are a precursor to reality tv – put a bunch of random people together, disrupt their sleep, create challenges to eliminate people at set intervals, and raise the stakes whenever possible. Get some sponsors, charge admission, and sit back to enjoy the show.

The characters aren’t “likable” because who would be likable under that kind of strain? The setting is immutable but doesn’t feel stale. The plot pulls you along like the flow of traffic leading up to the site of an accident – you’ll be going by no matter what so you may as well have a good look.

If you ignore history in your novels you may be disappointed, especially if you demand characters you want to have a beer with. But if you’re interested in an un-romanticized view of a little-known aspect of the Depression They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a gripping read.