Frog Music??by Emma Donoghue is a historical novel, based on true events in San Francisco in 1876. Jenny Bonnet was shot after she and Blanche Beunon had left Chinatown for San Miguel in a type of ‘Thelma and Louise’ girly getaway. The murder of the real Jenny Bonnet was never solved and Donoghue has put her own suggestions forward in this novel as to whom the killer may have been. The result is an intriguing story. Bonnet had been imprisoned for wearing men’s trousers when she and Blanche met and formed an unlikely friendship. Blanche was a French circus girl and having moved to San Francisco with her boyfriend Arthur and his friend Ernest. She becomes a dance girl and prostitute. Within 18 months of moving to the city, she has earned enough to purchase the house, letting out apartments to various tenants. She also earns enough money to keep the two men in her life, all they seem to do is gamble.
Blanche and Jenny assume quite ‘masculine’ roles in the patriarchal society of 1876. I had never realised that wearing men’s clothing was illegal then, the story of Calamity Jane made me think it was unusual, not necessarily accepted but not against the law in some areas. Jenny sells frogs to the various restaurants and is independent financially. Her background is a mystery to us and to Blanche and it is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. Although Blanche sells her body, she is financially independent and is a property owner.
When Jenny makes Blanche question the fact that she left her baby at a baby farm as she was working and that was the way it was done in France, she discovers he isn’t living in the healthy countryside with a wet nurse as she had presumed but dying slowly in an overcrowded house in the sweltering city, she retrieves him and struggles to cope with the changes to her life. ?Her whole persona changes and with it come some serious changes to her life. A altercation with Arthur and Ernest means that she leaves her home and her baby, when she returns they are all gone and it’s the start of her frantic search for her son.
The story is told in various flashbacks. It moves from the developments of the murder scene and Blanche’s attempts to recover her son and find out who killed Jenny to back over the events of the previous month so we gradually learn more about the relationship between these two women at the same time as reading about ‘current’ events. The result is an intriguing read in a well written and woven tale. ?The book does transport you to a San Francisco that is steaming with a heatwave, overcrowding and fraught with the fear of catching smallpox which seems to be rampant. The Chinese seem to be carrying the blame for the spread of the disease and there are racially motivated attacks. The heat, the worry, the spread of disease, the wealth, the poverty – all seems to be coming together like a volcano and it’s a case of waiting for the lava to start flowing.
Through Blanche’s eyes, we see a critique of society. It is a world where a cross dresser provokes attention, a woman wearing trousers is imprisoned yet babies are slowly murdered by a slow neglect in baby farms and children as young as ten can be sourced for prostitution.
I’ve enjoyed all of Donoghue’s novels that I have read over the years; Room, Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter and her book of short stories Astray, and Frog Music?didn’t disappoint at all. Thoroughly enjoyed it.