Emma Donoghue follows her breakout international bestseller Room with a return to her favorite terrain, the historical novel.
Frog Music is set in San Francisco in 1876. The city is wealthy after the gold rush, rebuilt after the great fire, and a melting pot with people of every nation coming to seek their fortune, but it’s also a powder keg, with ethnic tensions running high due to an influx of Chinese laborers willing to work very cheap, a long drought, and an ongoing smallpox epidemic combining to keep everyone on edge.
Donoghue bases her novel on a real-life murder, and wastes no time in dramatizing the incident. In the very first scene, two women are hiding out in a rough shack at the edge of the city. One, Blanche Beunon is a French burlesque dancer, and the other is Jenny Bonnet, a petty criminal who dresses in men’s clothes. A shotgun is fired through a curtained window, Jenny is killed, while Blanche is miraculously spared.
The narrative then moves along two lines: back through Blanche and Jenny’s growing friendship leading up to the murder, and forward following Blanche’s attempts to unravel just who Jenny was and who killed her in its aftermath.
The structure works to keep us guessing who exactly killed Jenny, and whether or not they had been aiming for Blanche. But, the murder mystery is simply a means to ratchet up the tension, the real subject of the book is how these two independent-minded women sought to make lives for themselves in the corrupt world of a San Francisco emerging from the lawless frontier, but still far from a city of law and order.
The real Jenny Bonnet is a folk hero to some, who paint her as a cross-dressing lesbian heroine, and Donoghue sets out to sift through the rumors and lurid stories and arrive at a fictional understanding of who she might have been, and what forces shaped her. (The author includes a lengthy and fascinating afterword to reveal what is historical fact, and what her own invention.) Blanche is less well known, but Donoghue adopts her as the point-of-view character through whom we see the world of San Francisco.
Blanche has come to America along with two French men, her lover Arthur (referred to as her maquereau or mac, which means a kept man), and his friend Ernest, who appears to be equally in love with Arthur. Blanche supports her lover through her work as a stripper and high-class prostitute. A year previously, Blanche gave birth to a child, a boy she calls P’tit, and allowed Arthur to find a nurse to raise the child full-time, so she could resume performing and keeping Arthur in the style to which he had become accustomed. When Jenny Bonnet innocently asks where her baby is, she sets Blanche to questioning everything about her life, and sets events in motion that will lead to a shotgun blast through a window.
Blanche is in many ways the opposite of Ma, the mother of young Jack in Room. While Ma goes out of her way to try and raise Jack in a loving environment despite their imprisonment, Blanche is a terrible mother (and she knows it); preferring to have her child institutionalized in order to return to her semi-comfortable life of pleasure and excitement. Jenny forces her to wake up to her failings, and confront the rationalizations and darker aspects of her nature that keep her with a man who uses and abuses her.
In a recent interview as part of the Dublin Book Festival, Donoghue said “One very Irish theme I explore [in Frog Music] is the lingering, multi-generation effect of the neglect and abuse of children,” and Blanche’s growing realization that she’s failed her child spurs her to find him and attempt to rebuild a life as mother and son. Unfortunately, this brings her into immediate conflict with Arthur, who wants Blanche to continue as his meal ticket and compliant sexual partner. As Blanche starts to discover more about Jenny’s early life, and the abuse she suffered, it puts Jenny’s questioning of Blanche’s decisions about P’tit’s care into new light.
Donoghue has long been drawn to women on the margins, the transgressive, and those who dare to cross all manner of lines. Blanche and Jenny are threatening to the men in their lives, and suffer for it in different ways. It was actually illegal for women to dress in men’s clothes in San Francisco, so Jenny was often arrested or threatened with arrest by policemen seeking bribes. Blanche’s prostitution and stripping were barely legal, but her financial success made her acceptable; she even earned enough to purchase her own house. Then as now, successful women were terribly threatening to men, especially in an America whose national identity is built on the bedrock of strict gender roles within a heterosexual family unit.
Although Blanche controls the purse strings, and so has Arthur potentially under her thumb, she’s too deeply in thrall to him object or refuse his instructions until Jenny awakens her fierce mother love for P’tit. Blanche and Jenny’s relationship is complicated and tragically ended before it can really begin, so we never get to see what they might have evolved into. Each is clearly fascinated by the other, as both have taken on typically male roles for herself: Blanche the breadwinner, the property owner; Jenny who similarly makes her own way in the world financially and also appropriates male clothing.
All in all, Frog Music is a triumph, a tense page-turner that also manages to be a fascinating meditation on gender roles, and a hymn to the fierce love even bad mothers bear for their children.
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