During the scorching summer of 1876, Jenny Bonnet, an enigmatic cross-dressing bicyclist who traps frogs for San Francisco’s restaurants, meets her death in a railroad saloon on the city’s outskirts. Exotic dancer Blanche Beunon, a French immigrant living in Chinatown, thinks she knows who shot her friend and why, but has no leverage to prove it and doesn’t know if she herself was the intended target. A compulsive pleasure-seeker estranged from her “fancy man,” Blanche searches desperately for her missing son while pursuing justice for Jenny, but finds her two goals sit in conflict.
In language spiced with musical interludes and raunchy French slang, Donoghue brings to teeming life the nasty, naughty side of this ethnically diverse metropolis, with its brothels, gaming halls, smallpox-infested boardinghouses, and rampant child abuse. Most of her seedy, damaged characters really lived, and she not only posits a clever solution to a historical crime that was never adequately solved but also crafts around Blanche and Jenny an engrossing and suspenseful tale about moral growth, unlikely friendship, and breaking free from the past.
Frog Music will be published on March 27th by Little, Brown ($27 hb/$12.99 e-book, 416pp). This review first appeared in Booklist's 2/1/14 issue.
Some other notes:
- This is the third starred review (out of four total) I've written so far this year. 2014 has been shaping up well for historical fiction, but we knew that!
- The surname "Bonnet" is pronounced to reflect its French origins ("bonnay"), not like the head covering.
- Jenny Bonnet's backstory as recounted here is taken straight from history. As Donoghue writes in an author Q&A in the back of the ARC: "One journalist kindly alerted me to the fact that there was a hoax in my Wikipedia entry, a claim that I was writing about 'the murder of a cross-dressing frog-catcher!' - and was abashed when I told him it was true."
I went googling around for info on this unusual woman after finishing the novel and found this news bit in the May 23, 1874 issue of Common Sense: A Journal of Live Ideas, a city weekly: "A young woman named Jenny Bonnet was arrested in San Francisco a few days since, on a charge of misdemeanor in wearing male attire. She stated that she had been herding sheep in San Mateo county in the garb in which she was arrested, which she put on to enable her to get such employment. She was locked up in the city prison."
A letter to the editor by "E. Hughes," published the following week, defended Jenny and praised her determination to "follow out her ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in her own way... Is life to sink to one dull, dead level, ruled over by the august respectabilities of our metropolitan police? If women want to herd sheep, why should they not do so?"
If any of this intrigues you, why not pick up the book when it comes out a month from now.