Emma Donoghue’s 2014 historical novel Frog Music
is set in 1876 San Francisco, when a summer heat wave smothers the city, a small-pox epidemic sweeps through households, and anti-Chinese-immigrant hostilities surge. Amid all that is the unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet, a frog-catching free spirit whose defiance of the local ordinance against cross-dressing repeatedly landed her in jail. Donoghue’s novel picks up the pieces of Jenny’s story and constructs a resolution to the mystery of her death. But that’s almost tangential to the heart of the narrative: Jenny’s consequential relationship with Blanche Beunon, the real-life burlesque dancer and prostitute who alone witnessed Jenny’s murder.
The present-tense narrative begins on September 14, 1876, the evening of twenty-seven-year-old Jenny’s death. She and Blanche share a shabby rented room at San Miguel Station, south of San Francisco’s center. Just as Blanche bends down to untie her gaiters, a bullet sails through the window. Jenny tumbles over, dead. Blanche is both shocked and guilt-riddled, certain she was the shooter’s intended target. She resolves to bring her companion’s killer to justice.
Without much warning, the narrative leaps back to late August, when Jenny and Blanche first crossed paths. Thus the book establishes its pattern of jumping chronologically between the days following the murder and the days leading up to it. On the sweltering August evening in question, a penny farthing bicycle hurtles down the street and collides with Blanche. Surprisingly, the cyclist who helps Blanche to her feet is female, despite sporting short hair, pants, and a vest. Jenny Bonnet, just released from jail for wearing men’s attire and riding a stolen high wheel, helps Blanche limp home. In this way their unusual friendship begins.
Blanche, age twenty-four, maintains a ménage à trois with her longtime lover Arthur Deneve and his close companion, Ernest Girard. One-time circus performers in Paris, the trio moved to America hoping to improve their fortunes. After less than two years in vice-ridden San Francisco—a rowdy, ribald, frontier town—Blanche earns top dollar as a burlesque dancer at a bordello called The House of Mirrors. With additional income from her work as a high-class whore, she saves enough money to purchase a rooming house in Chinatown. Arthur and Ernest live with her and off her. Freeloading dandies, they use her money and body to indulge their desires for elegant wardrobes and threesome romps. Blanche herself finds satisfaction in her work, claiming to have a voracious sexual appetite.
Then Jenny crashes into Blanche and upends her world. Although Jenny says little about herself beyond her vagabond livelihood as a frog-catcher for local French and Chinese restaurants, she has the unnerving habit of asking pointed questions. “Who are you and what’s your story?” she demands of Blanche. And after Blanche tells all, Jenny asks if she truly enjoys selling herself “on the town,” planting niggling doubts in Blanche’s mind. But it’s when Jenny sees a photograph and wonders “who’s the baby?” that she pricks Blanche’s conscience and punctures her self-deception.
The baby is P’tit Arthur, Blanche and Arthur’s tiny offspring, born a year ago. To ensure that Blanche continued working without disruption, Arthur decided P’tit should be “nursed out” to a farm. Imagining her son nourished by fresh country air, and not very fond of the baby anyway, Blanche agreed. But now, with Jenny’s prodding, Blanche discovers the farm is a squalid city building where the babies, stuffed two or three in a crib, are “strangely inanimate.” Overcome with more pity than maternal love, she takes P’tit home. He has rickets and is generally sickly. Although Blanche often feels revulsion toward the “wretched, ugly” baby, she devotes herself to his care.
As motherhood is now her priority, Blanche quits her job at the bordello, much to Arthur’s dismay. Moreover, she neglects Arthur to tend to P’tit’s needs. When Arthur contracts small pox, Ernest stays by his bedside while Blanche keeps her distance, fearing for P’tit’s health. This rankles both men, who dislike the baby and resent his intrusion in their household. After Arthur recovers, he and Ernest become increasingly abusive toward Blanche, even attempting to force her back into sex work. She eventually flees the house but leaves P’tit behind.
Blanche takes refuge with Jenny in the room at San Miguel Station, where their relationship goes beyond mere friendship to physical intimacy, and where Jenny is killed. Arthur takes advantage of Blanche’s absence to sell her property, pocket all her money, and hold P’tit hostage. He’s also, in Blanche’s opinion, the prime suspect in Jenny’s murder. The authorities have little inclination to pursue the shooter of a “he-she-whatever,” so Blanche turns amateur sleuth to solve the mystery and recover her baby.
After stumbling on a number of false leads, Blanche uncovers the truth about Jenny’s life and death. She discovers that, for all her apparent transgressions of conventional womanhood, Jenny’s past is unoriginal. Her mother was an alcoholic, and her sister died in an insane asylum. At a young age, Jenny was “farmed out” to the “Industrial School,” where she was mistreated. She set up house with a man not unlike Arthur who gambled away all their money. Following a dabble in prostitution and a failed suicide attempt, Jenny remade herself as an eccentric.
Largely by chance, Blanche confirms that Arthur orchestrated Jenny’s murder. He and Ernest enlisted twelve-year-old John Jr., who’s smitten with Blanche, to shoot Jenny, a deed he was happy to do after witnessing the women’s lovemaking and mistaking it as Jenny attacking Blanche. After the trial, with P’tit restored to her, Blanche forges a new life. She moves to Sacramento with P’tit and opens a dance studio.
As for the title of her novel, Donoghue explains, “‘Frog music’ is my invented term for the lustful, urgent sounds made by a chorus of frogs in the mating season. The novel is all about the basic—base—urges and drives we share with our fellow creatures.” But it’s also about humans’ higher aspirations to secure friendship, love, and self-determination. This is, ultimately, the gift Blanche receives from Jenny.