The historical novel that offers a surfeit of period detail—books such as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha—can make us feel very distant from the men and women (however much we may sympathize with them) who dress and sound and live so differently than we do. By the final pages, we may notice that we know more about what they wore and how their houses looked than about who they were. Whereas the psychological novel set in the past that focuses on language and characters—as with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Péter Nádas’s Parallel Stories, and Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter—can give us the sense that we are reading about ourselves or versions of our friends and neighbors, people who, oddly enough, seem to have been born and died in another time and place.
Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams provides a perfect example of how a gifted writer can make us feel as if he is writing about a past era—beginning in 1917—from inside the characters who inhabit it. One of the miracles that literature can perform—its ability to persuade us that there is such a thing as human nature, that certain aspects of feeling and belief are constants, fundamentally unchanged by geography and history—is unlikely to occur when we are perpetually being distracted by expository passages that seem to us to emit the dusty aura of the research library as we encounter an accumulation of costumes and customs.
Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music is an unusual case, in that it begins as a rather standard historical novel, eager—even anxious—to barrage us with surface details: the sights, sounds, and smells of the seamier side of San Francisco during a heat wave and a smallpox epidemic in the summer of 1876. In an author’s note, Donoghue tells us that with the exception of five minor figures, all of her characters are based on real people, and that much of what happens in the novel was inspired by incidents described in histories of, and newspaper articles from, that time; in addition, she has made use of ship’s passenger lists and census, birth, and death records. Another series of notes describes the provenance and significance of each of the many songs that are sung by characters in the book.
Near the start of the novel, we watch Blanche Beunon, in her laced gaiters, long skirt, and bustle, making her way along wooden sidewalks past locales that strike us as important only for their ability to convey the atmosphere of the rough-and-tumble coastal city:
The Pony Express Saloon is already advertising September’s grand-prize-gala dogfight. Spotting a yellow smallpox flag nailed over the door of a dress shop, Blanche holds her breath and veers away…. Past the Bella Union Theater, where what sounds like a full house is chanting for the variety show to begin. The Ice Cream Boudoir is stuffed to the gills, but City Hall’s deserted—except for a prisoner in the lockup who clangs on the bars of the basement window as Blanche walks by, making her jump. Portsmouth Square is fenced with iron spears dipped in gold.
There are passages of dialogue that make us wonder when—and if—people spoke this way. Insulted by a stranger, a woman calls him “a leather-headed lunk of the highest order,” and when told to mind her own business, she produces a gun and says, “My friend Mr. Colt here would not concur.” And we may find ourselves noting how often bits of history—a newspaper headline, an aside about how thieves were punished during the Gold Rush, the fact that a luxury hotel had just installed that marvelous new invention, a hydraulic elevator—are shoehorned into the narrative.
But as the novel progresses, we can feel the writer’s attention shifting away from her research notes and the familiar tropes of the western to delve more deeply and more interestingly into the psyche of her central character, who is attempting to solve a murder mystery before the killer catches up with her. While Blanche is fairly certain about who committed the crime, we read on to discover what she cannot yet bring herself to face: the reason why the murder occurred. And our interest is sustained as she uncovers secrets, learns startling new information about people she thought she knew, and comes to understand that the motive behind the crime (and the way it was committed) is quite different from what she had assumed. Ultimately Frog Music becomes less of an experiment in time travel than a book about what a hapless, self-centered, but ultimately decent and resourceful woman must do in order to survive under arduous—and often terrifying—conditions.
As a writer who has taken considerable risks in her work—her previous novel, Room (2010), was written from the point of view of a five-year-old boy who has spent his early life confined with his mother in a small enclosure—Emma Donoghue has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, drawn to stories about characters who are either naturally intrepid or required by extreme circumstances to behave in courageous ways. The heroine of Room is a woman, referred to as Ma, who has been imprisoned with her child in a windowless, soundproof shed; eventually they escape and return to the outside world, which proves to have its own pitfalls and perils from which the fiercely protective Ma must shield her son. In Life Mask (2004), a celebrated eighteenth-century comedic actress risks her career and her reputation because of her attraction to another woman. In Landing (2007), two women—a flight attendant and a museum curator—fall in love and must cope with the extent to which passion threatens to disrupt their settled lives.
The theme of personal heroism—and the ways in which love and even friendship between two women can serve as an irritant and a challenge to the men around them—runs through much of Donoghue’s fiction, and both of these subjects are central to Frog Music. Like the heroine of Slammerkin (2000), Blanche Beunon is a prostitute. She and her lover, Arthur, have emigrated from France, where they made their living as circus performers, riding horses bareback and swinging from a trapeze. Living amid the squalor of San Francisco’s Chinatown, Blanche dances for, and sleeps with, the customers at the House of Mirrors, a notorious bordello run by an unscrupulous and cold-hearted Prussian, Madame Johanna.
When the novel opens, Blanche has left Albert (for reasons that will not become clear until much later in the book) and is living in a rented room on the outskirts of the city with a woman named Jenny Bonnet. As Blanche leans down to lace up her gaiters, a shot rings out, and a bullet—that Blanche believes was meant for her—kills Jenny. (The real-life Jenny Bonnet was murdered in San Francisco in 1876, and the crime was never solved.)
From this point on, the action skips back and forth in time, which has been more or less neatly divided: before and after the murder. After a brief interlude in the house where the shooting has occurred, we find Blanche at an earlier (if not all that much happier) moment, passing the saloons and theaters en route to her first meeting with Jenny, who is wearing a “jacket, vest, pants, [her] jet hair hacked above the sunburned jawline” and riding a bicycle on which she accidentally knocks down Blanche.
Jenny’s sartorial choices (she has already been arrested and imprisoned for dressing like a man) and daring mode of transportation are in keeping with the eccentricity and fierce independence of her professional life: she supports herself by hunting frogs, which she sells to restaurants. “The City has three hundred restaurants,” she explains, “and all the French and Chinese ones need frogs.” Over a tasty meal of frog’s legs sauteed in butter and garlic at a brasserie that Jenny supplies, she and Blanche begin a tentative friendship and have their first brush with the hostility and violence that will beleaguer them throughout the book.
Were this a contemporary novel, Jenny might be described as having problems with “boundaries.” She blithely ignores the social niceties, and doesn’t hesitate to ask strangers the sort of overly personal and impolite questions that are likely to make them uncomfortable. Until her meeting with Jenny, Blanche has been more or less content with (or at least resigned to) an existence that most women would find intolerable, but the peace she has made with the mistreatment and humiliations she suffers at home and at work turns out to be more fragile than she has supposed. Jenny’s inquiries about Arthur and his best friend Ernest—a former partner in Arthur’s circus act—alert Blanche to the extent to which she is being exploited by the two men with whom she lives.
But what most drastically changes Blanche’s life is Jenny’s questions about the baby Blanche has had with Arthur, and whom—on the advice of Madame Johanna—she has sent away to what Blanche imagines as a pleasant farm where children can enjoy the health-giving benefits of fresh air and good food. Goaded by Jenny’s curiosity, Blanche sets out to find the infant she calls P’tit, and is horrified to discover him—listless, filthy, malnourished, and deformed by rickets—in a gruesome orphanage not far from her home:
Crib after metal crib, littered with small limbs…. Weak goatish cries go up. Two small ones in one crib, three in the next…. Tear-shaped glass bottles in mouths, or gone crusty on chests, or lost in corners with their black rubber teats dribbling onto the sheets. Every baby is tangled in the same size garment, once white. Eyes closed, or blinking wetly, or open and vacant.
Moved to outrage and pity, Blanche rescues P’tit, but soon discovers that caring for a sick infant is trickier and more exhausting than she might have supposed; that she is only intermittently capable of rising to the demands of motherhood; and that raising a child requires a degree of patience, competence, and knowledge that is, too frequently, beyond her. “One of the many things about babies that nobody told her is that every incremental advance makes them harder to handle.” Fantasies of killing the child (“And Blanche—just for a moment—has a vision as if from high overhead: Herself at the height of rage throwing P’tit against a wall. His scaly, misshapen body cracking in two when it hits”) alternate with moments of love and fervent compassion:
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 a tiny boy want a hug from her right now with the tears she’s caused still dancing on his red cheeks?
Predictably, Arthur is less than pleased to be reunited with his young son, whom he views as an inconvenience and a threat to the routine—drinking, gambling, having rough sex with Blanche, and sharing her with Ernest—that Blanche’s earnings have allowed him to enjoy. Jenny is the only one who encourages Blanche to keep the infant. Not only does Jenny have sympathy for the child but she is able to understand and anticipate his needs, “the obscure miseries of babies.”