Sarcastic Sex Workers and Lesbian Frog Catchers in Emma Donoghue’s Historical Novel Frog Music

I remember going to a talk by Irish Canadian author Emma Donoghue years ago at the University of Western Ontario (or so it was called then) where she discussed researching and working on her 2014 novel, Frog Music. I recall her telling a story that went something like: “Someone told me there was a mistake in my Wikipedia page. It said that the latest novel Emma Donoghue is working on is historical fiction about a frog-catching lesbian. They said, that can’t possibly be true! Then they were aghast to discover, that, yes, that was indeed an accurate depiction.” Of course, this being a book about a frog-catching lesbian isn’t really the full story of Frog Music; it is but a fascinating piece of this odd, vibrant novel.

Frog Music is at once an intriguing character study, a murder mystery, and atmospheric historical fiction set in 1870s San Francisco that truly brings the period to life. It has content and themes ripped from the headlines like her most famous (not queer) novel Room, but this time the headlines are old: from 19th century American newspapers.

Did you know it was illegal for a woman to wear “men’s clothing” in 1800s San Francisco? And that they’d actually arrest you, throw you in jail for a while, and your so-called crime would be reported in the newspaper alongside other misdemeanors? Jenny Bonnet was one such real woman that Donoghue learned about in her research. But while Bonnet was known for her unrepentant cross-dressing, she ultimately become famous posthumously when she was the victim of an unsolved murder which took place in a room she was sharing with another woman on the outskirts of the city. Check out this interview for more info on Donoghue’s research.

The novel reimagines Jenny’s life and that of the woman who was with her at her death, Blanche Beunon. Lest you’re worried that the enigmatic woman Jenny will be absent from the novel because of her untimely death: Frog Music alternates between past and present, telling both the story of the two women’s meeting and developing friendship and that of Blanche trying to solve Jenny’s murder after her death. The structure makes for a thrilling story. I will say, however, that the protagonist is distinctly Blanche, rather than Jenny, as much as we get a lot of Jenny.

emma donoghue

Emma Donoghue / image via The Irish Times

There are a few things about this novel that I really liked. The first is how richly the historical setting is created. Donoghue’s San Francisco in the summer of 1876 feels like a character unto itself, one that you know with all your senses. You can feel the smoldering humid heat of the summer, hear the burlesque songs, taste the frog legs cooked in butter, and see Jenny flying down the cobbled street on her strange 19th bicycle (one of those ones with a giant front wheel and a tiny back one). Donoghue doesn’t sugarcoat the sexism, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia of the times, but she also doesn’t let it define the characters the injustices are affecting or fetishize them. I don’t know how to describe it except the book feels utterly of a different time.

The second aspect of Frog Music I appreciated was how Blanche is made to be neither necessarily ‘likeable’ nor ‘good’. She’s a loving but ambivalent mother, a sex worker, a burlesque dancer, a woman who likes to have lots of sex, sarcastic, and more than occasionally bitchy. She has sometimes terrible taste in men, and is frustratingly unaware of how she’s being taken advantage of by the men in her life. She has no qualms, as a French immigrant, of declaring how superior the French and their ways of doing things are. I love how angry she gets when Americans mispronounce her last name, missing the nasal “n” sound.

My third favourite thing about Frog Music was how unusual the novel’s main relationship is. Blanche and Jenny first meet when Jenny literally runs into Blanche in the street while riding her bicycle. Blanche, true to her character, is pissed and lets Jenny know. It’s a strange start to a friendship, if you can call it that. The two women quickly become entangled in each other’s lives. Jenny is instrumental in getting Blanche to wake up and stand up for herself in her relationship with her “maque” aka live-in boyfriend of a sort Arthur. But it’s hard to say whether Blanche and Jenny really like each other. They’re nothing like two 21st century BFFs. At times they feel distinct disdain for one another. There’s also definite sexual attraction between them although they’re certainly never girlfriends. I thought this ambiguity of relationship type and label was just fascinating!

I listened to this novel as an audiobook and I also have to praise the voice acting performance! Khristine Hvam, the voice performer, does a marvelous job of capturing the various accents (notably, French and American), as well as taking on actually singing the variety of music that is included in the novel. It is called Frog Music after all. If you’re at all into that format, I definitely recommend listening to this book. I found the middle of the book sagged a bit in pacing, but the audiobook format carried me through.

This is the first historical novel I’ve read by Emma Donoghue, but I’m sure it won’t be my last. Has anyone else read Frog Music, or any of her other historical books? Which other one should I dive into next?

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation (Nanaimo, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
This entry was posted in Canadian, Emma Donoghue, Fiction, Lesbian, mystery, Queer, Sex Work. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Sarcastic Sex Workers and Lesbian Frog Catchers in Emma Donoghue’s Historical Novel Frog Music

  1. This sounds really interesting? I might have to add it to my reading list!

  2. Ginny says:

    A great review. I have been meaning to read her novels for a long time, and this will motivate me.

    However, my guess is Emma never used the term “sex worker”. It’s not sex and it’s not work. The victims of prostitution use the term “prostituted”.

  3. Rachel says:

    Emma Donoghue is one of my favourites! The first book of hers I read was Slammerkin, which is about a prostitute in 18th century London. Very recommended.

  4. Pingback: Link Round Up: April 21 – May 5 – The Lesbrary

  5. Carl Cushman Hybels says:

    Frog Music creates an unusual range or bipolar-ness of reader views. My own: I enjoyed the evocativeness of San Francisco, 1870’s –I felt there, hearing and smelling it. Like for many: Jenny was the most interesting character. But she’s murdered early on. Jenny reappears –often in a hard to follow or care about chopped up (and weak) plot. Emma D. goes out of her way to toss the pieces up in the air, to fall, like some characters, where they may. It’s not really a murder mystery. There’s a murder, yes, and some mystery –but the story does not get any further in reeling in/ snooping/crafting a mystery story. –Rather it turns and bounces back and forth ‘in place. ‘Many readers, including me, got annoyed/ lost interest. I skipped a bunch of pages fwd, to reconnect for awhile. Then gave up on that and skipped to the end, which didnt reinvigorate my interest. Some characters weren’t very interesting, such as P’tit, the infant we’re supposed to care more about than i did, or Arthur or Ernest. I liked the minor character John Jr, an authentic self-conscious/caring young adolescent. .I agree with some reviewers who found the Appendix, with its non-fiction reveal, to be more interesting than the novel was. I liked the seedy sides of the book, though with the authentic brothels, burlesque, 1870’s city tenement, liked the French circus side. … It would be interesting to hear parts of the audio-book version – the French songs might be illuminating in that.; The French language parts did nothing much for me in silent print.

  6. Scrum_Jet says:

    This is on my list for #20BooksofSummer and I’m really looking forward to it.

    I very much enjoyed her other historical novel, Life Mask, which is set in the eighteenth century and has queer women characters.

  7. Would definately recomment Slammerkin!

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