Booked Up

In Old San Francisco

Frog Music offers a murder mystery -- and a gritty historical narrative -- set in Frisco in 1876.

By - Sep 4th, 2014 01:59 pm
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

We are living in a golden age of the historical novel. Great writers are reexamining our past and giving us new perspectives and upsetting our preconceived notions of people from other eras. This week’s recommended reading, Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (author of the previous bestseller, ROOM), is a perfect example. It is a gritty and often disturbing tale of murder and intrigue in Old San Francisco, circa 1876.

Based on a real case, Frog Music is a gripping mystery, as well as a dark examination of the underworld of a raucous boom town. Centering on a French burlesque dancer and prostitute, Blanche Beunon, the novel packs lurid details and touching kindness side by side. Blanche and her macks, men who live off women of the night, create a strange ménage a trois. A cross-dressing female frog-catcher, Jenny Bonnet, disrupts this odd household and propels the plot forward to murder and mayhem.

The French émigrés, the frogs, have come to San Francisco to make their fortunes. Jenny supplies frog legs to the French restaurants popping up around the city and Blanche and her cohorts, Arthur and Ernest, make a living off a motley stream of prospectors, business men, and gamblers. Always in the background, or as prelude to the various colorful scenes, are French and American songs. Often sung by Jenny, but eventually by most of the characters, this music creates a happy counterpoint to the often depressing lives of these struggling immigrants.

In 1876, San Francisco is a melting pot of ethnicities and nationalities. An uneasy tolerance and acknowledgment of hardship keep the rapidly growing city from boiling over. That is, until a smallpox epidemic hits during the worst heat wave in California’s history. This is the impetus for tragedies, both civic and personal.

Ms. Donoghue writes in the patois of the times and captures a story part penny dreadful and part Horatio Alger. Blanche suddenly finds herself with a baby, Petit, despite her rigorous (and hair-raising) routine of “birth control.” The child is damaged and demanding and the story transforms into a tale of the reluctant mother to the frog prince.

The teaming of Blanche and Jenny remind us of many literary partnerships from the past. There are echoes of Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, even Thelma and Louise. These pairings are uneasy at first, but grow into deep friendship. Blanche and Jenny find the same

When tragedy strikes, Frog Music transforms again – this time into a real mystery. The main characters are thrown together in suspicion and guilt. No police inspector can penetrate the code of the underworld. It takes one of the demi-monde to solve the crime.

Emma Donoghue is a gifted writer. This book deepens the admiration I felt after ROOM. She has opened an unknown world to us and forced us to smell and taste it, even when it disgusts us. Her achievement here is one akin to time travel. We are transported and return with insights into the past in ways we may never have dreamed. Frog Music makes the past sing.


Spotlight on Local Writers: Carole E. Barrowman

Wauwatosa resident Carole E. Barrowman has recently completed her young adult fantasy trilogy, Hollow Earth, with the UK release of The Book of Beasts. It is the story of the struggles of twin animare (people capable of bringing art to life or entering paintings). She will continue their adventures in a new trilogy tentatively called The Orion Chronicles, which follows them as they grow up.

Ms. Barrowman’s previous books include Hollow Earth, Bone Quill, and two co-authored autobiographies of her actor brother, John Barrowman (Anything Goes and I Am What I Am). Local residents will know her mystery reviews for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Minneapolis Star Tribune. She also appears regularly on WTMJ’s The Morning Blend.

The Book of Beasts is published by Head of Zeus in the UK. Ms. Barrowman’s biography and more information can be found here.


Upcoming Book Events:

Friday, September 5 (7:00 PM): Julia Mary Gibson, author of Copper Magic, at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Sunday, September 7 (3:00 PM): Paul Druecke, Martha Bergland, and Paul G. Hayes read at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, 2145 West Brown Deer Road. Co-sponsored by Woodland Pattern Book Center.

Monday, September 8 (7:00 PM): Daryl Brown, co-author of Inside the Godfather: Never Before Told Stories of James Brown by His Inner Circle, at Boswell Book Company.

Monday, September 8 (7:00PM): Outwords Men’s Reading Group discusses The City of Palaces by Michael Nava at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee, 2710 N. Murray Avenue, Milwaukee. (414) 963-9089. New members are always welcome!

Tuesday, September 9 (7:00 PM): Mary Gordon, author of The Liar’s Wife: Four Novellas, at Boswell Book Company.

Tuesday, September 9 @ 7:00 PM): Lesbian Reading Group discusses Departure from the Script by Jae at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee. Everyone is welcome to join in the discussion.

Wednesday, September 10 (6:30 PM): An Oak Creek Library Event with Melissa de la Cruz, author of The Vampires of Manhattan. The Oak Creek Public Library is located at 8620 S. Howell Avenue in Oak Creek. (414) 764-4400 Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, September 10 (6:30 PM): Book Club discusses The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin and Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh at The Little Read Book, 7603 W. State St., Wauwatosa. (414) 774-2665

Wednesday, September 10 (7:00 PM): Stuart Rojstaczer, author of The Mathematician’s Shiva, at Boswell Book Company. Co-sponsored by the UWM Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies.

Thursday, September 11 (7:00 PM): Gail Martin and Patricia Barone read at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001

Thursday, September 11 (7:00 PM): Patricia Polacco, author and illustrator of Fiona’s Lace, at Boswell Book Company.

Friday, September 12 (2:00 PM): Betsy Woodman, author of Emeralds Included: A Jana Bibi Adventure, at Boswell Book Company.

Friday, September 12 (7:00 PM): Madison’s Miki Knezevic, author of Behind God’s Back, at Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook. And good reading!

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