Frog Music: A Novel by Emma Donoghue (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. 410 pp)

Emma Donoghue was born in Dublin, Ireland to Frances and Denis Donoghue. She attended University College Dublin earning first-class honors in English and French. Later, she received her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. In addition to Room, she has written the Sealed Letter, Landing, Touchy Subjects, Life Mask, the Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Slammerkin, Kissing the Witch, Hood, and Stirfry. Donoghue lives in Ontario, Canada with her family.

Describing History

The preservation of history requires detail. Historians often wax poetically around the systems and institutions of history. The historian asks big questions, such as, what socioeconomic issues constitute causes for the Roman Empire? It existed at one point. Archeology and architecture suggest great power. Where did it all go?

The storyteller, on the other hand, demands an alternative set of requirements. In particular, historical fiction paints with a different medium. With the modifier, “history,” the genre considers the significance of truth. Such a novel must live within a world for which the reader demands a truthful account. An author may take liberties with certain character traits, even for real people in our annals. But the setting and milieu must exhibit truth in finite detail.

And so it is with Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music, an intriguing who-dun-it pulled from the headlines almost 150 years ago. True to the genre of historical fiction, Frog Music focuses on its setting, and interestingly enough, pulled my mind to question the ice box and the logistics of food preservation.

In Consideration of the Ice Box

Of course, you may begin to question my sanity if a murder mystery immediately links to pre-technological processes for food, let alone withholding a few cubes for a drink on the rocks every once and awhile.

My mind ponders the icebox because Donoghue paints 1870s San Francisco with a photorealistic brush. Page after page, Donoghue emits the swampy stench of a city burgeoning beyond capacity.

Boils, fevers, sweat, dirt. The picture of a pre-industrialized city develops with fecetic stains.

Jenny Bonnet

Based on a true story, Frog Music follows Blanche, a burlesque dancer and the story’s protagonist, as she tries to solve the murder of her friend, Jenny Bonnet.

“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” (6).

Hinted but never confirmed, Jenny functions as a proto-transgendered individual, wearing male clothing despite its illegality.

“Blanche remembers Jenny singing. She did it like breathing. The child star could have stayed on the stage, warbling and strutting with her parents, pleasing the crowds. Could have done any number of things. To think of all the lives Jenny tossed aside so she could live this particular one. And who’s to say she ever regretted it” (297)?

A firebrand individual, Jenny shakes Blanche from her life slumber and creates a trail of enemies. A frog catcher, Jenny inspires Blanche to throw off the chains of patriarchy and to be her own woman.

Life Without Refrigeration

And yet, a middle-of-the-road story plays second fiddle to the meticulous detail of Donoghue’s historical setting. Set during a heatwave, I often considered what life might entail without refrigeration, and a small offhand comment about not having ice in an icebox for months struck me as the exact kind of detail necessary for manufacturing a lived-in narrative.

For this reason, I recommend Frog Music if you’re a fan of historical fiction. Donoghue’s writing captures the reader and helps create the suspension of disbelief as you enter an era of time long passed. Just be sure to drink a cold glass of water first. There’s no ice in that icebox.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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