If you have ever read William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, you remember Rosalind, perhaps one of the best heroines for her wit, unwavering determination, and, most of all, ability to cross-dress. In Emma Donoghue’s latest work, Frog Music, readers are introduced to a young woman of similar distinction. However, whereas Shakespeare wrote the beautiful comedy featuring Rosalind, Donoghue’s historical fiction captures tragedy by honing in on a real-life figure: Jenny Bonnet, a tough 27-year-old cross-dressing frog catcher whose life and death remains shrouded in mystery.
In San Francisco during the sweltering summer months of 1876, two young women come into view: Jenny and her close friend, titillating burlesque dancer, Blanche Beunon. Jenny makes ends meet by dressing as a man whilst catching frogs for local restaurants. While one might not question such behavior today, during the 19th century, cross-dressing was deemed a jailable offense. But Jenny proves to be a fearless rebel alongside Blanche, her complicated and beautiful sidekick.
Unfortunately, one night changes the duo forever. In one moment, Jenny and Blanche are talking and, in the next, are quickly enveloped by tragedy. In a mysterious turn of events, a gunshot is heard before an unsettling quiet takes hold: “Blanche’s eyes adjust to the faint radiance. Something on the floor between bed and wall, puddled in the corner, moving, but not the way a person moves. Arms bent wrong, nightshirt rucked obscenely, skinny legs daubed with blood, and wearing a carnival version of a familiar face.”
Blanche finds Jenny shot, blood pooling where her body remains. Shaken, Blanche realizes Jenny is dead, a fatal gunshot wound to the head. Following the death of her closest friend, Blanche soon seeks out answers. She becomes a powerhouse of a protagonist as her voice resonates during a time of both personal and universal disorder. Blanche not only attempts to solve the mystery behind Jenny’s murder, but also save her child. Readers are then given a glimpse of the community of outcasts Blanche is a part of, one facing a smallpox epidemic.
The novel displays a robust environment of crime, punishment, and hope for redemption. Readers are met with dark themes of prostitution, abuse, and child neglect. As demonstrated in Donoghue’s afterword, some of the major characters and events were taken directly from historical record. That being said, Donoghue notes that many details are missing, including the identity of Jenny’s real-life murderer. The plot showcases a fictional web of intricate details that readers fall into as it draws and entangles characters closer to a danger they may or may not escape.
[Published: 9 April 2014, The Weekender]