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'Frog Music' Sounds A Barbaric (But Invigorating) Yawp

San Francisco in the summer of the 1876, between the Gold Rush and the smallpox epidemic, is the setting for Emma Donoghue's boisterous new novel, Frog Music.

There's real frog music in these pages, the riveting cries of the creatures hunted by Jenny Bonnet, one of the two main characters. She's a pistol-packing, pants-wearing gal in a town where pants on women are one of the few cardinal sins, and she scratches out a living catching frogs and selling them to local restaurants.

As the book opens, Jenny comes rolling along a busy San Francisco street on a stolen bicycle. "Drinkers shuffle arm in arm from bar to bar, bawling dirty choruses; knots of men head for the bordels on Commercial or Pacific ... Smallpox be damned: nobody's staying in tonight." She accidentally knocks down a French danseuse (famous for her "leg dance" on local stages) named Blanche Beunon, not yet in her mid-twenties, and the mother of an undernourished waif. Some bumpy "meet cute," as they say in the movies.

So now here's Blanche, also picking herself up off the street. She supplies the other frog music in the novel, the charming songs she sings while putting on her erotic shows, mostly at Madame Johanna's House of Mirrors. Blanche has cobbled together her earnings from the dance hall and prostitution so she can buy a small building in Chinatown. Here she supports her former circus aerialist consort Arthur and his acrobat pal Ernest — and now and then gives them both sexual succor in boldly described early morning acrobatics.

Jenny, poor fabulous Jenny — a former prostitute herself — has little except for her bicycle, sleeping where she can, including the streets where a smallpox epidemic rages. And it's not a spoiler to say that before the first chapter ends, she's dead from buckshot, fired by an unknown killer through the blinds of the flophouse room she's sharing with Blanche.

Emma Donoghue's previous novel was <em>Room</em>.
/ Andrew Bainbridge
Andrew Bainbridge
Emma Donoghue's previous novel was Room.

The novel itself shows a lot of leg, dancing back and forth between the few days before the murder (in which we get to see the growing friendship between the two women) and the days after (in which Blanche tries to figure out the mystery of her dear new friend's death). This sets a jaunty pace, and emerging from it is a portrait quite compelling of two strong, if eccentric, women and the city they live in: raucous, violent, charming, filthy, plague-ridden San Francisco. And what turns out to be a portrait — complete with explicit scenes of intense fornication and blazing fisticuffs — of their brief affair.

Though Donoghue poses the book as a mystery — who killed Jenny Bonnet? — it's equally a celebration of love despite hardships galore, and the rising call of motherhood against near impossible odds. With, I should add, a soundtrack on the page of vintage music hall songs, some of which are the raunchiest you'll ever hear. Cock your head! Listen! Ah! Frog music!

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.