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Emma Donoghue's Frog Music is an 1870s Crossdressing Murder Mystery Joy

Emma Donoghue. You sphinx of the book world, how can we tell what you're going to write about next?

Her last book was Astray, a history-inspired set of short stories; before that was Room, a novel told from the perspective of a child who's grown up in a single room due to his mother being held there by a kidnapping psychopath. Before THAT, she's had books about the 18th, 19th, and current centuries, some lesbian and some heterosexual, three non-fiction works, and YOU JUST NEVER KNOW WHAT'S COMING. It's all very exciting.

Donoghue's newest book, out this week, is Frog Music. The good people at Little, Brown sent me a copy of it, presumably because they read this and realized I would storm their castle gates until it was rendered up.

Frog Music is based on the real life murder of an 1870s San Francisco cross-dresser named Jenny Bonnet. Donoghue loves taking obscure historical events and expanding them into a whole story, and I love her history nerd mind for doing it. The novel is told from the perspective of the woman who is with Jenny when she dies, Blanche Beunon. Blanche dances for the gentlemen of San Francisco, if you know what I mean. 

I went into this not knowing what to expect. Then I decided it was about Blanche. Then I decided it was about Jenny. What I was NOT expecting was it being about Blanche and her baby, Petit. Very surprising.

It's very hard for me to LIKE books about babies. It seems weirdly cliched or like the author finally had a kid and wants to tell you how unique their perspective is on this event that happens to most of the planet. Emma Donoghue takes the mother/child bond and doesn't idealize it. She talks about getting peed on and vomited on and being so frustrated you feel you're going to go insane and can this baby just give you five — FIVE — minutes so you can regroup -- no? -- why, tiny baby, why. But there is this bond. And it keeps you going.

He's frozen for a moment. Massive dark eyes fixed on hers. Then he shrieks even harder, and his hands shoot out. Such an unfamiliar gesture that at first she flinches away from the thickened wrists, thinking he's trying to throttle her. And then she understands. This is what breaks Blanche's heart, that even as P'tit's sobbing with fright, he's reaching out for her in a way he's never done before, a way she didn't know he could. How could the tiny boy want a hug from her right now, with the tears she's caused by shrieking obscenities at him still dancing on his red cheeks?

The book starts with Jenny's murder in a little town outside San Francisco and moves you backwards and forwards from that point, which is my favorite sort of device because I get BORED, people. Linear time is for suckahs. You see Blanche and Jenny's first meeting and the entirety of their short acquaintance, Blanche's relationship with her longtime "maque" (Blanche is French and a lot of slang is used, but is completely understandable -- her maque here is essentially her kept man), and her relationship with her son.

Because Emma Donoghue is a history nerd, 1870s San Francisco is made clear to the reader, right down to the smell of the air and color of the mud. So many authors who set their stories in the past rely on famous figures popping up ("Why, President Lincoln! Think of seeing you here! Off to the theatre tonight, sir?" wink wink) and when you instead are able to show through your obvious research that went beyond Celebrities of the 1560s what it was like to be alive and walking through the streets of that time, then I tip my period-appropriate hat to you.

Apparently any one of these would do, but
what they all need is MORE BIRDS AND FLOWERS

The shifting timeline kept me interested, the historical detail kept me interested, and of course the mystery of Who Killed Jenny Bonnet kept me interested. Donoghue excels at historical writing, and it's obviously where her passion lies. She finds the most obscure historical event and crafts a 300+ page novel about it, making you meet the people involved and feel for them. I'm so happy she wrote Frog Music. Add more to this genre, Donoghue!


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