Most of us click through news headlines and see disaster or distraction; Emma Donoghue sees her next muse. The abduction of Elisabeth Fritzl helped inspire her last novel, 2010’s best-selling Room — a bravura child’s-eye view of growing up entirely within the walls of a makeshift 11-by-11-foot cell.
Her newest subject is taken from real life as well, though it never made the CNN crawl: the death of Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dressing young frog catcher whose unsolved murder captivated the citizens of 1870s San Francisco. Frog Music’s main protagonist is also the crime’s only witness, a French burlesque dancer named Blanche Beunon who met Jenny just days before she died, and may have been the killer’s true target.
Donoghue admits in the author’s note that historical records of the case are scant. But she’s the kind of writer who never goes less than all-in; her post-Gold Rush city, caught up in a brutal heat wave and a smallpox epidemic, practically sweats through the page. (You might find yourself reaching for a pocket fan and a copy of your inoculation records, just to be safe.) It’s a town where a girl like Jenny can stroll into a saloon and order a beer, but just as easily spend 40 days in jail for ”appearing in the apparel of the other sex.” And where the doll-faced Blanche can command $50 for peeling her clothes off on stage, and even more off stage with the night’s luckiest customer.
Donoghue builds her world so well that Frog’s first half goes by like a music-box waltz. It starts to stumble a little, though, when Blanche, who has a mustache-twirling scoundrel of a lover and some very complicated maternity issues, makes choices better suited to a damsel in a dime-store novel. And it’s hard not to wish for more Jenny, who always dances just outside of Donoghue’s grasp. Then again, without this vivid, slippery book we wouldn’t have gotten to know her at all. B+
”Blanche huddles on one of the barrels that serve for stools. Dead. Dead, she repeats in her head, trying to grasp it. Jenny’s dead on the floor in there.”