Review: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Whenever I read about history, whether fact or fiction, I consistently come away from the experience feeling disturbed at the way the world used to be. Sometimes it pushes me to ruminate over similar atrocities still happening around the world. This book speaks of woman’s rights, the treatment of children, the treatment of juvenile delinquents, rampant corruption, and the state justice system, among other equally frustrating parts of our society’s ridiculously unethical past. Frog Music by Emma Donoghue took all of these issues, dropped me right into San Francisco in the summer of 1876, and wove a complex, engaging and passionate story that left me anticipating her next work.FrogMusic

Sometimes I begin a book knowing exactly what to expect, other times I embark blindly into a new world where I only know a very tiny bit of storyline. In this case I did the latter, and not because of the popularity of the book or the ratings that I perused, but because of the author herself. Emma Donoghue wrote Room, which inspired me to read several true stories of abductions and similar tales of insane imprisonment. So, when I saw Frog Music being discussed and anticipated in reading circles that I am connected to, I decided I would bury myself in it as soon as I could get my hands on a copy. I purposely kept ignorant on the ins and out before starting. For all the anticipation that I felt before dipping in, this book did not disappoint.

Frog Music tells the story of Blanche Buenon, a dancer and prostitute, who befriends a cross dressing female named Jenny Bonnet of the outspoken yet magnetic variety. The book tells the story of their relationship over the course of one month. Blanche has a lover called Arthur, who is basically her pimp. In their lives, there is a sort of third wheel by name of Ernest who is extremely loyal to Arthur. Blanche also is mother to “Petit,” the baby. Jenny, by contrast, prides herself on not being tied down. She is a free spirit that comes and goes as she pleases.

The story begins with a murder. A crime committed by “unknown persons,” but Blanche is convinced the circumstances clearly point to Arthur pulling the triggera. Ms. Donoghue skillfully navigates us down two separate timelines: one that tells the story of how the murder comes to pass, and one that follows Blanche on her quest to bring the murderer to justice. Both story lines are highly engaging, and the switches happen at just the right intervals. Each bump left me wanting more of the story to be told, so I would voraciously continue through the alternate plot, only to be left wanting more, yet again!

One of the significant issues explored in this story was the incredibly abusive, abhorrent, and atrocious treatment of children. “A one year old who can barely sit, who hasn’t yet figured out how to crawl, let alone walk or run,” Donoghue writes, is seen by people as normal. When a description of a “baby farm” was given, telling of rank smelling rooms with dozens of cribs, each with two to three drugged up toddlers or infants, little people kept in perpetual darkness and seclusion, I actually cried. These little human beings were thrown away by ignorant, uneducated, or unquestioning adults that gave them life. Dumped in a hole,Donoghue paints a dark and wrenching reality of “all the missing children. Washed into the world against their will, to do their time. A day, or a year before being sent out of it again.” Frustration with a baby who is so neglected that he recognized touch as traumatic, noise as overstimulation and solid food as unrecognizable, made me want to scream: ‘of course he can’t handle this! He has been thrown in a dark room, given nothing but the absolute least sustenance possible for almost a year, and you expect him to just laugh at your jokes and perform tricks for you??’ As you might be able to tell, this was the plot line of the story that made me most crazy.

Given Blanche is a prostitute Frog Music contains a lot of sex. There were some particularly graphic scenes, one about a threesome, one about an encounter with a rich importer that spoke of her wanting him to “part her pearl sheen thighs and bang the living daylights out of her,” and several sexual fantasies.

One other plot point that I found interesting was the stance being portrayed about lesbianism. I know the author does in fact lean this way, so I am unsure what to make of it, and whether she sent this message for a reason, and whether this is her opinion about the foundational origins of being gay. There is one scene in the story that describes a sexual encounter between two women. However, the attitude presented as to why the coming together happens, is basically that at least one of the women simply has a primal need that has gone too long without nurturing. For all of society’s talk about whether sexual orientation is a choice, or a fundamental part of who a person is, it sure seems like the author is choosing to present it to the reader as a matter of convenience.

I began reading without a real inclination to what the story would be about. I should have known though. After all, how could I expect the author of Room to leave out real, meaningful, heart wrenching, issues that life throws at all of us? After I got over the initial shock and stress of reading about baby farms, I was able to completely immerse myself in the story of this book, and it has left a lingering impression on my mind; both for how well done the writing was knit into a thrilling mystery, and also for the ways in which injustices in the world were captured on the pages: so real, so chilling.

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