Author Interviews
1:36 am
Thu April 3, 2014

A Song Of Frogs, Motherhood And Murder In Swampy San Francisco

Originally published on Thu April 3, 2014 5:53 am

In her bestseller Room, writer Emma Donoghue imagined what life would be like for a little boy born into captivity, to a mother who'd been kidnapped and sexually assaulted.

And in her new novel, Frog Music, she's imagined a possible solution to a very real murder, one that took place in California in 1876.

"On the very outskirts of San Francisco, in a grimy bar, a lot of bullets came through a window and they killed one woman in the room, Jenny Bonnet, who was a professional frog catcher," she tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "And they left the other woman, Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer, unharmed."

The crime was never solved, but Donoghue pored over historical records so she could write the story of what might have happened. She shaped her characters using court documents and newspaper accounts from the time, starting with with the murder victim — Jenny Bonnet — who was known around San Francisco for selling frog legs to French restaurants, among other things. "She shows up in the records quite often for getting arrested for cross-dressing, which was against San Francisco city laws."


Interview Highlights

On the irrepressible Jenny Bonnet

She manages to crack jokes, you know, even in a one-paragraph newspaper report, you'll have her joking with the journalists or telling the judge, "you know, I can't change out of my pants in the evening, Your Honor, because I don't have any other clothes. Do you want me to go naked?" So that sense of ebullience and that maverick sensibility, it just leapt across the centuries at me, and I thought, I have to explore her story.

On the city itself, in 1876

The city was wonderfully ramshackle. It had been thrown together really fast, by miners and the restaurateurs and the prostitutes, and a few decades on, after the Gold Rush, it was trying to clean itself up, so that there were all these new laws against, for instance, the carrying of parcels on a long stick, just because that was how the Chinese happened to carry them.

But really, it was a city of liberty, and it was known not just for its freedoms but for its diversity and its very urban mindset. And also, the city was in the middle of a very untypical heat wave, so it was burningly hot all that summer in San Francisco, and they had a smallpox epidemic. You couldn't make this stuff up.

On Blanche and her career

I wanted to tell quite a subtle story of somebody for whom the sex trade seems to be working just fine; Blanche feels that she's got loads of power when she's dancing, and these helpless men are just throwing money at her heels. But I wanted to find moments in which she realizes that the trade is actually costing her too much, and in particular she's had a baby and has farmed it out, and I wanted to look at the subject of mother love, and see, could it possibly grow up on this stony soil.

On the music in Frog Music

Music was such a wonderful way to show cultures forming themselves, like all these different ethnic groups in San Francisco literally rubbing up against each other, borrowing each other's songs, so the musical traditions are so wonderfully mixed and impure.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In her bestselling book, "Room," the writer Emma Donoghue imagine what life would be like for a little boy born into captivity to a mother who'd been kidnapped. Now she has imagined a possible solution to a very real crime. It was a true life murder in California in the late 1800s. Here Emma Donoghue describes the facts behind that new novel, "Frog Music."

EMMA DONOGHUE AUTHOR,: On the 14th September in 1876, on the very outskirts of San Francisco in a grimy bar, a lot of bullets came through a window and they killed one woman and the room, Jenny Bonnet, was a professional frock catcher. And they left the other woman, Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer, they left her unharmed.

INSKEEP: That crime was never solved. But Emma Donoghue has gone through historical records to write what might have happened. She shaped her novel's characters using court documents and newspaper accounts from the time, starting with the murder victim, Jenny Bonnett. The young woman was known around San Francisco for selling frog legs to restaurants and also for dressing like a man.

AUTHOR,: She shows up quite often in the records as getting arrested for cross-dressing, which was against San Francisco city laws. And she managed to crack jokes, you know, even in a one-paragraph newspaper report, you'll have her joking with journalists or telling the judge: Well, you know, I can't change out of my pants in the evening, Your Honor, because I don't have any other clothes. Do you want me to go naked? So that sense of ebullience and that maverick sensibility, it just leapt across the centuries at me. And I thought I have to explore her story.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just mention that there's another main character here. You mentioned Blanche and Jenny. Another character perhaps is the city of San Francisco itself, and it's 1876. What was the city like back then?

AUTHOR,: The city was wonderfully ramshackle. It had been thrown together really fast by miners and the restaurateurs and the prostitutes. And a few decades on, after the Gold Rush, it was trying to sort of clean itself up. So there were all these new laws against, for instance, the carrying of parcels on a long stick - just because that was how the Chinese tended to carry them.

INSKEEP: Oh, let's remind people there was a substantial Chinese population there. Many of them had been brought to California at some point, or their family members had been, to work on railroads and so forth.

AUTHOR,: Absolutely, so they were totally necessary for the building of America. And yet the white people in charge were trying to sort of tidy up the city by moving the Chinese out of sight. But really, it was a city of liberty. And it was known not just for its freedoms but for its diversity and its very urban mindset. And also the city was in the middle of a very untypical heat wave, so it was burningly hot all that summer in San Francisco. And they had a smallpox epidemic. You couldn't make this stuff up.

INSKEEP: So, we have Jenny - this woman who flouts convention, who's a woman who wears pants. And we have Blanche, who's a prostitute. And I guess one of the driving forces in this novel - I don't want to give away too much - is that Blanche begins to be pried away from her life of dancing and prostitution?

AUTHOR,: I tried to be really subtle about prostitution in this book. It's not remotely pro-prostitution as a story. But I wanted to tell quite a subtle story of somebody for whom the sex trade seems to be working just fine. Blanche feels that she's got loads of power when she's dancing and these helpless men are throwing money at her heels.

But I wanted to find moments in which she realizes that the trade is actually costing her too much. And in particular she's had a baby and has farmed it out. And I wanted to look at the subject of mother love and see could it possibly grow up on this stony soil.

INSKEEP: You've just used a phrase that I think opens another door into history. You said that she had a baby and farmed it out. When do you mean by that?

AUTHOR,: In those days they had a form of full-time childcare informally known as baby farms. The dark name for them was that these people were angel makers, meaning your child was so likely to die but it was almost like a factory for turning children into the angels. It might also have been known as a foundling home. But really, these places were utterly grim and you put your children in them if you had no other option.

INSKEEP: This is a reminder also that life expectancy used to be a lot shorter and a major reason for that was immense rates of infant mortality, children died at unbelievable rates in the 19th century.

AUTHOR,: Right, it wasn't that 40 year olds were keeling over in the streets. It was that not many people made it to adult life at all.

INSKEEP: Can I ask about one other thing, Emma Donoghue? From the very first paragraphs of this book, you have a character singing and people continued to sing. And you print the lyrics again and again in the book. Why did you do that?

AUTHOR,: I got really interested in music partly because my main characters have performance backgrounds. But also because music was such a wonderful way to show cultures forming themselves. Like all these different ethnic groups in San Francisco literally rubbing up against each other, borrowing each other's songs. So the musical traditions are so wonderfully mixed and impure.

INSKEEP: Did you find yourself humming or singing a song as you were writing?

AUTHOR,: Oh, I did. And I listened to so many versions of them. A lot of them I found in the work of Pete Seeger. He was just such a treasure house of song. And some of the songs that I found it hardest to track down, in terms of when they were first published, where the rude songs. Because songs with dirty lyrics, often it seems like they've been around for centuries, but nobody dared write them down.

One particular one that Pete Seeger does, called "Darling," it seems that it's been around at least since the end of the 19th century. But it was very difficult to find a published version of it.

INSKEEP: Do you sing at all?

AUTHOR,: Oh, badly. For this book tour, you know, I'm making myself sing any bits of song as they come up in the course of the novel. But...

(LAUGHTER)

AUTHOR,: ...very much an amateur.

INSKEEP: Can you sing something for us?

AUTHOR,: I'm blushing even as you ask.

INSKEEP: So no, come on. Anything here you want to sing?

AUTHOR,: Yeah, I do (unintelligible) in readings. I'll give you a little verse from "Darling."

(Singing) Darling better loved just one. Darling better loved just one. You can't love more than one and have all the fun, darling better love just one.

INSKEEP: What a lovely song. So that's a song that's been around for a long time.

AUTHOR,: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it's certainly been around since the end of the 19th century but changing all the time. That's the wonderful thing. They morph in every generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Emma Donoghue's latest novel is called "Frog Music."

Thanks very much for speaking with us.

AUTHOR,: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARLING")

PETE SEEGER: (Singing) Oh, darling can't love but one. Darling, you can't love but one. Oh, you can't love but one and...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARLING")

SEEGER: (Singing) Darling you can't love two. Darling, you can't love two. You can't love two and still to me be true. Oh, darling... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.