Friday, October 10, 2014

Frog Music


   Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman named Jenny Bonnet is shot dead. 

The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny's murderer to justice--if he doesn't track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women, and damaged children. It's the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.

In thrilling, cinematic style, FROG MUSIC digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue's lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes captures the pulse of a boomtown like no other
(From Goodreads)

   When I originally read the description of this novel on the New York Times Best Seller list, I was intrigued. I am a sucker for a based on reality, historical crime novel. I immediately added it to my reserve list at the library, and patiently waited for it to come in. Finally, after a month wait, I got the long anticipated email telling me this treasure awaited me behind the circulation desk. I dove head first into this novel as soon as I arrived home, and quite honestly suffered from sleep deprivation the next day because I did not want to put it down. 

   The opening scene, set in an old dusty 1870’s saloon just outside of San Francisco, hooked me quicker than stink bait does a hungry catfish. Yes, I know that might be a slightly unusual way to describe it, but it is the complete truth. The death of a main character in the opening paragraphs seems a bit morose, and quite daring, but Emma Donoghue pulls it off with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. The raw, gritty way that Donoghue portrays the death of Jenny Bonnet instantly grabs hold of you, and no matter how unfortunate it may be you can’t get away. What starts off as a couple friends, Jenny Bonnet and Blanche Beunon, singing songs from their French homeland while preparing for bed, quickly turns into a violent, confused scene of murder. The way she chronicles Blanche mentally dissecting the situation as it is happening plants the reader right in the room with the two women, allowing you to almost feel the bloody bed and smell the sulfur for yourself.

    So, who killed Jenny Bonnet and why? To answer that question, the story rewinds to approximately two months prior to the fatal night. Blanche, a French burlesque dancer, is the toast of the nightlife scene. Men want to be with her and women want to be her. Her talent to seduce and tease on the stage is second to none, and her “off stage skills” are in high demand. Little did she know that her life would forever be altered by the fateful day that she was nearly run over by the cross dressing frog catcher, Jenny Bonnet. From that point on, whether they liked it or not, their fates would be intertwined. The characters of Jenny and Blanche were such a breath of fresh air. Not once was there a moment of needy whininess. Oh no! Not from these girls. These were strong-willed, no nonsense, Wild West ladies looking to escape the bondage of male domination. Jenny’s way of doing this was by dressing as a man, which allowed her access to places that a proper lady would never venture. Her male disguise also gave her a separation from her secretive past, which ironically is the inspiration for her persona. Blanche, on the other hand, used her sexual power over the men to her own advantage, earning a very sizable living on their concupiscence. 

 For Blanche, however, the stakes were slightly higher. Enter P’tit, her love child with her Bohemian boyfriend, Arthur. Blanche felt that she would not be able to provide a stable home for her child given her lifestyle, so she agrees to allow her Madam to farm him out, if you will, to a family who takes in unwanted children. To her dismay, Blanche comes to find out that this was not the reality of the situation, causing her world to be turned upside down. She quickly discovers that everything she held as evident truths was nothing more than a lie. The tailspin that ensues threatens to bring about momentous changes in the lives of those around her, including the very existence of Jenny Bonnet. 

 At this point, I will discontinue my explanation of events to prevent me from giving away too much. I will, however, add a bit of commentary about the writing prowess of Emma Donoghue. I am an enormous fan of a good storyteller, and Donoghue did not leave me disheartened in the slightest. The action and intrigue in this book are astounding. Her narrative is colorful and filled to the brim with dynamic and vivid depictions of what life was like in San Francisco just before the turn of the century. From the constant fear of contracting smallpox, to the vast chasm that existed between the wealthy and the poor, Pre-1900 San Francisco was the epitome of the Wild West following the Civil War. Emma Donoghue was able to accurately and romantically bring the characters of Frog Music to life in this dusty, and at time earthquake ridden city, while maintaining the integrity of the factual details of the murder of Jenny Bonnet. I confidently give this book 4 stars.

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