This was an unexpected addition to my list, and it was a great one! I read this snippet from an interview with the author and just had to add it:
One journalist kindly alerted me to the fact that there was a hoax in my Wikipedia entry, a claim that I was writing about “the murder of a cross-dressing frog-catcher!”–and was abashed when I told him it was true.
Only in San Francisco, right?!?
I’m reading my way across the USA–3-5 books from each state (or 13 in California!), with an emphasis on those where the setting is integral to the story, or where we learn something about the people, the history, or the geography of the state.
I promise we are almost done with California. But there were so many options to begin with, and I kept finding more… I think one of the reasons we have so many for California is just that California is so enormous, and SO varied–this was particularly evident in The Wild Birds by Emily Strelow, with the 3 distinctly different California settings–a foggy island off the coast, the Mojave Desert in the southeastern part of the state, and the redwood forests in the north.
But California is also known for its cities, and I wanted something really good for San Francisco. I found two. The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, which is set in the 1980s, and this one: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue, which takes place in 1876 during a heatwave and a smallpox epidemic.
True to the quote above, Donoghue’s novel is based on the unsolved murder of Jeanne (Jenny) Bonnet, who was arrested multiple times for violating an anti-cross-dressing law that was in effect in San Francisco, and who earned her living by catching frogs and selling them to San Francisco’s French restaurants. Beyond these basic facts, things get a bit murkier, with contradictory stories in news clippings of the time (Donoghue has a detailed document listing her sources online), the LGBTQ community (understandably) claiming Bonnet as one their own, and the fact that so many additional documents may have been lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires.
Regardless of what’s historically accurate (or not) about the mystery itself, Donoghue does a fabulous job setting the scene for us in 1876 San Francisco–the physical bits and pieces, the cultural clashes, and the music–San Francisco is a lively, well-developed character in this book!
Within the first dozen pages, she’s given us this earthy image of the city:
Not that this cockeyed metropolis is a patch on Paris, to Blanche’s mind, even if some call it the Paris of the West. The Capital of the West, maybe, but San Francisco is a tenth the size of the City of Light, and it hasn’t a smooth boulevard, a promenade, even an avenue worth the name. The City, the locals call it, as if it’s the only one. All hills, like some feather bed that a giant’s shaken and left a crumpled mess.
And this tidbit about the heatwave:
The summer began civilly enough, with warm breezes whisking away the morning fogs, but now, heading into the second half of August, the City can’t breathe. The air’s a stinking miasma of all the steams and soots San Franciscans can produce. One newspaper’s dug up an odd little fellow who’s been noting down what his thermometer tells him every day since he arrived in ’49. This summer of 1876 is the hottest season in his records, with the mercury hitting ninety every afternoon.
Then we meet Jenny, with her odd profession, “The City has three hundred restaurants, and all the French and Chinese ones need frogs.” And her odder criminal record–“What were you in for?” “Oh, the usual. ‘Appearing in the apparel of the other sex,’” quotes Jenny in a pompous voice. Blanche frowns. Can that be an actual crime?
And we’re on into Chinatown, “Blanche breathes in hot oil, ginger, and sesame. Then rotten vegetables, from the next alley. This quarter’s always filthy—mostly because the City supervisors won’t fix its sewers or pay for garbage collection,” though the roughness of the neighborhood is laughed off: “The neighborhood’s notoriety is more than half invented, to give tourists a thrill. Ying upstairs told me the guides have taken to staging brawls in Fish Alley, paying fifty cents a man!”
And speaking of unusual laws, Donoghue mentions some of the anti-Chinese laws that were passed around this time as well:
A constant stream of Chinese bachelors parts around her, not an empty hand among them. Every man seems to be hauling a bale of shoes, a laundry bag, or a wet basket of sea life writhing on a bed of kelp; Blanche recognizes shrimp, squid, and those snails that always remind her of severed ears. Some of the men are toting their baskets on long sticks over their shoulders–in defiance of the City’s new bylaw criminalizing that tradition, or has nobody told them it’s a crime yet?
Then there is the eponymous music, from Stephen Foster (“there’s nowhere you can go to out of earshot of his jingles”) to French lullabies, Donoghue’s San Francisco comes with a playlist, and, though many of the songs are just snippets, they add great realism and personality to the novel.
I also want to take a moment to talk about reading e-books versus reading paper books. I love reading real books, and I know there are some studies that say that kids, in particular, tend to do more skimming and less in-depth reading when they read an e-book format, but Frog Music was a perfect example of why I love reading on my e-reader. Donoghue’s main characters are all French immigrants, and, as recent immigrants, they pepper their speech and thoughts with French words and phrases. But I don’t speak French. However, on my Kindle, I can highlight the phrase, “cuisses de grenouille,” and find out that this means “frog legs” (which I could maybe figure out from the context), but I can also find out that “choucroute” is the French version or word for sauerkraut. Yes, some of the words and phrases I can figure out from the context, but not all of them. And when the characters make a reference to “rickets,” but don’t say much about it, I can highlight it and take a look at the Wikipedia page for rickets to give myself some additional context about it. My Kindle also has an option to email myself all of my highlights and notes in a document, which I can then use to drop quotes into my posts, like the ones above. And, best of all, if I’ve forgotten where that quote about the anti-Chinese law was, I can search the whole book for the word law or Chinese and find it. It makes blogging book reviews a whole lot easier for me. I can’t always find all of my book choices on Kindle. I have a physical copy of The Golden Gate that has a plethora of orange post-its sticking out the side and penciled notes in the margins. That works too, and I don’t reject a book because it’s not on Kindle.
But, back to Frog Music! In case you’re wondering, we do get a small scene with actual frogs and a little bit of a lesson about California red-legged frogs, along with a recipe for frog legs.
[Blanche] breathes in the warm aroma of the garlic. “What’s going into that?” “Frog legs, of course, fricasseed with sherry.” Jenny stirs with a sure hand. She pulls a blotchy creature–five inches long–out of her sack. It strokes the air convulsively. “Ever met a California red-leg?” “Not close up and moving, … Why aren’t its legs red?” “Reddish, wouldn’t you say?” Jenny holds the frog closer to Blanche, who squirms away. “Redder than other frogs’, anyhow.” With its dark mask, the red-leg has the look of a bandit. Prominent ridges rise from hips to eyes. … “They can jump twenty times their length, did you know that?”
There are other lovely bits about San Francisco as a city of immigrants:
This is said to be the foreignest city in America; almost none of these people were born here. Back in Paris, Blanche remembers, there are so many protocols, so many ways to behave comme il faut, “as things are done,” because that’s how things have always been done. But San Francisco’s a roulette wheel, spinning its citizens and depositing them at random. Blanche has been driven around by cabbies who’ve claimed to be gentlemen temporarily down on their luck, and she’s spent well-paid nights with michetons who’ve boasted that they began as coal miners.
And tidbits about the Wild West days of the Gold Rush:
“I never saw anyone earless in Paris. I wonder why so many Americans are born that way,” remarks Blanche, jerking her thumb at him. “Something in the diet here?” Jenny cackles. “What?” “That’s how they dealt with thieves back in the Rush. Miners hadn’t got time to spare for jurifying. Just lopped the guilty party’s ears off”—with a nod in the direction of the old musician—“ and went back to panning.”
And, of course, the earthquakes:
“There was a bad tremor back in January that woke me up.” “You thought that little shimmy was bad?” Jenny crows. “Should have been here for the big one eight years back, when the City fell down around our ears. I’d been out on a bender, so I was half convinced I was seeing things. Cracks in walls opening and shutting like mouths… a four-story frontage dropped right off while I was watching.”
I could keep quoting from the book all day, but I hope I’ve made my point–Frog Music by Emma Donoghue was a wonderful addition to my reading challenge list for California. San Francisco is a wonderful character in its own right in the novel, and I’m so glad I happened across this one!