Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heatwave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman called 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.
Sitting on the edge of the bed in the front room, Blanche stoops to rip at the laces of her gaiters. "'Dors, min p'tit quinquin'" Her husky voice frays to a thread on the second high note. She clears her throat, rasping away the heat.
A train hurtles north from San Jose. The light from the locomotive's headlamp jabs through the long gap between the peeling window frame and the green blind, illuminating the room for Blanche: the shabby bureau, the bedstead, and Jenny, lolling against the scarred headboard. The Eight Mile House shakes like cardboard as the freight cars rattle by. Here at San Miguel Station, they're right at the southern boundarythe last gaspof San Francisco.
Two days Blanche and Jenny have been boarding with the McNamaras, auld acquaintance to Jenny but still virtually strangers to Blanche. How much longer will Blanche be stuck in this four-room shack, she wonders, on the parched outskirts of the outskirts of the...
Frog Music is the best kind of historical fiction: as authentic in its emotions and characterizations as it is in its archival details. Jenny's story—and, to a certain extent, Blanche's own—is one of creating new identities out of choice or necessity, of striving for new beginnings in the wake of loss and tragedy, of trying and sometimes failing to craft new beginnings for oneself. To say that Donoghue brings her roster of historical characters to life in her fiction is to understate the profound humanity and immediacy that she bestows on these figures out of the historical record.
(Reviewed by Norah Piehl).
Full Review (855 words).
Frog Music is set in San Francisco in 1876, during a summer notable not only for its record-setting heat waves but also for its smallpox epidemic, one of many that plagued the United States during the nineteenth century even as efforts were being made to eradicate the disease through vaccination and inoculation. According to Donoghue's afterword, the 1876 epidemic left 482 (of the roughly 200,000 residents) dead, and more than 1,600 infected with the highly infectious and debilitating disease.
Donoghue depicts a San Francisco plagued by racism and xenophobia, in which white San Franciscans accused Chinese immigrants of spreading the disease, and in which Chinatown was seen as the epicenter of the plague. An article from the ...
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