by Emma Donoghue
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
After the international success of Room, set in contemporary times, Irish-Canadian writer Emily Donoghue returns – as she did in Slammerkin and Life Mask – to another century finding inspiration in historical characters for her fiction.
From the grab bag of San Francisco’s colourful history, Donoghue pulls out a cast of tantalizing characters to populate Frog Music, a literary mystery based on the true-life unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dressing, frog-catching eccentric.
Like San Francisco, then and now, Frog Music is a spicy stew of capricious souls. Fast-paced, nuanced and richly descriptive, Donoghue captures the raw emotions and harsh realities of a world filled with greed, lust and intolerance but also conscience, acceptance and a whole lot of music. Threaded throughout this page-turner are snatches of lyrics from more than 25 often bawdy songs (researched, catalogued and described in Donoghue’s notes at the end). http://www.emmadonoghue.com/images/pdf/the-san-miguel-mystery-the-documents.pdf
The year is 1876, post-Gold Rush, in a blistering hot summer made more treacherous by a smallpox epidemic and growing agitation with the burgeoning Chinese population. The story opens with a murder in true crime mystery fashion. Bonnet is in a bed in a seedy hotel at San Miguel Station on the city’s outskirts. She is with Blanche Beunon, an exotic dancer and high-priced prostitute, who is hiding from her mac.
When Blanche leans over to untie her knotted gaiters, a shotgun blast blows a hole in Jenny’s chest, a scene we return to again and again, each time with a little more information as to who the players are and what factors have contributed to this bloody scene.
Arriving from the Paris Cirque d’Hiver, Blanche lives with her lover, Arthur DeNeve, and his cohort, Ernest Girard, both former trapeze artists and now chronic gamblers, in a dwelling she purchased with wages earned dancing as the Lively Flea at the House of Mirrors. This ménage à trois suits Blanche and Arthur but Earnest less so. Nonetheless, there is always money in the pot as Blanche is wise in the ways of pleasing men, whether through a striptease or a tryst with some wealthy patron. “Her genius for this job is that she doesn’t have to pretend, because every throb of her salty little crack is real.”
Jenny and Blanche meet literally by accident, when Jenny, freewheeling atop her penny-farthing, crashes into Blanche. Despite her penchant for trousers, Jenny becomes the first real friend Blanche has ever had but also a catalyst for change. Their friendship flourishes despite Jenny’s homelessness, her proclivity for picking fights and her questions that stick to Blanche like a chemise on a hot day.
When she inquires where Blanche’s baby son, P’tit, is being cared for, this creates a cascade of questions that awaken Blanche’s dampened mothering instinct. Once that door is open and Blanche retrieves her year-old son from a “baby factory,” she begins to change. As in Room, Blanche becomes a mother who puts herself at risk to protect her child despite being unskilled at the task. Early on she mistakes a sudden moment of warm love spreading over her that is nothing more than P’tit peeing on her blouse.
In her many references to frogs, Donoghue is perhaps suggesting not only the national origins of the four main characters, all originally from France, but also the transformation a tadpole undergoes, beginning in one environment but developing into a creature of both land and water. Jenny is a changeling: a woman, dressing as a man. Blanche also evolves, from a commodity whose “body likes having its mind made up for it” to a fierce fighter on behalf of her son and her friend. Even P’tit changes, from a rickets-riddled yearling unable to sit up to a bouncy little boy.
In the end, Blanche la Danseuse sheds her costume for the last time and dons a new persona. “Blanche will always like her drink, but she’ll try to make big decisions in the sober light of day… She will be fierce in P’tit’s defense; ambitious for his happiness, which means her own.”