In 1876, a woman named Jeanne Bonnet, who made her living catching and selling frogs to San Francisco restaurants—and was repeatedly arrested for wearing trousers in public—was shot to death.
A mention of Bonnet in a book on unconventional women intrigued the Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue, author of the 2010 best-seller Room, and she’s spun the few available facts into a rollicking story of post-gold rush San Francisco.
Frog Music is told from the perspective of Bonnet’s friend, Blanche Beunon, who witnessed the murder. Blanche is a smart, resourceful woman who is a well-known burlesque dancer and high-class prostitute. In France, she performed in circuses, dazzling audiences with her equestrian act, while her lover, Arthur, flew on the trapeze. But after Arthur injured his back in a fall, and the Franco-Prussian War broke out, hitting Paris hard, the couple fled to California in search of better fortune.
Frog Music moves back and forth in time between the shooting of Bonnet, whom Donoghue calls Jenny, and the story of Blanche and Jenny’s friendship, which begins when Jenny, riding a pilfered high-wheeled bicycle, collides with Blanche on the street.
Jenny Bonnet is a remarkable literary creation, a fierce free spirit who “wears her bruises like parade gear” and speaks in a charming Western patois. Jenny’s probing questions about who is taking care of Blanche’s baby son lead Blanche to retrieve the child from a horrifying child-care mill for working mothers, but she then has trouble caring for him and complains about it. “Keep him or don’t, is what I say,” Jenny tells Blanche. “Fish or cut bait, but don’t gripe.”
Jenny causes Blanche to rethink her entire way of living. After Jenny’s death, Blanche upends everything to try to catch the killer.
Although Bonnet was born in France, in Donoghue’s telling, she embodies the spirit of the West in the 1800s, with her disregard for conventional morality, inexhaustible gumption and determination to pursue life according to her own template. Frog Music is a rich historical whodunit that gives readers much to relish.
This review was originally published in High Country News.
By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company
416 pages, $27