My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This story is based on an actual event that happened in San Francisco in the summer of 1876 - the never-solved murder of a young cross-dressing frog hunter named Jenny Bonnet. Emma Donaghue takes the bare bones of that case and fleshes it out to detail an interesting and plausible tale of just how and why this murder happened and who may have been responsible.
That summer in San Francisco was a terrible time. The city was in the grip of a record-breaking heat wave, but its misery was increased exponentially by a smallpox epidemic which was terrifying the populace and making them wary of interacting with each other.
We meet Blanche Beunon, French immigrant, a burlesque dancer and whore who was the support of herself and her two "fancy men," Arthur and Ernest. All three had formerly been performers in the circus in France, but after Arthur, who was a trapeze artist, had a fall which injured his back, they all came to America. In San Francisco, they lived a bohemian life.
The birth of a son threatened to interfere with that bohemian life and with Blanche's career, but the problem was solved when Blanche's madam arranged for the child to be cared for on a "farm." Blanche continued dancing and whoring and supporting the two men in the manner to which they had become accustomed. The caregiver of the baby, P'tit Arthur or just P'tit, brought the baby to visit its mother occasionally, but Blanche never bothered to visit the place where the baby was being kept.
Then Blanche met Jenny Bonnet and everything changed.
Their meeting was bruising. Jenny was riding her high-wheeler bicycle on the street and collided with Blanche who was walking. They got to talking and Blanche was intrigued by this woman who dressed as a man and who hunted frogs that she delivered to local restaurants for her living. Blanche learns that Jenny is a notorious character around town who has been arrested for dressing as a man, but she is a natural charmer who seems to have friends everywhere. Jenny goes to Blanche's apartment, meets Arthur and Ernest, and learns that Blanche has a son who is now one year old. She asks questions about where the child is and those questions trigger a suspicion in Blanche.
Blanche seeks her son and finds him being warehoused with countless other babies, kept in a crib all day long. She grabs the baby and leaves.
Having a baby with her, of course, upsets the order of her life with Arthur and Ernest and soon everything falls apart. Within a matter of weeks, Blanche's world is turned upside down as Arthur, Ernest, and P'tit have disappeared and she is on the run with Jenny. While she and Jenny are staying at a hardscrabble railroad saloon on the edge of the city, an attacker shoots through the window of their bedroom one night and kills Jenny.
Blanche tries to figure out who shot Jenny and whether the bullet was actually meant for her and shooting Jenny was a mistake. At the same time, she is obsessed with finding and recovering her son, but she is left penniless and without resources for either investigation.
Emma Donaghue makes Blanche a believable character. Although I found the tale a bit difficult to get into at first, by the latter chapters, my interest was fully engaged and I was curious to see how this very unconventional woman's life would play out. Moreover, I wanted things to end happily for her and especially for P'tit.
The events detailed here of so many damaged women and children, as well as desperate paupers and arrogant millionaires, combine to make an unexpectedly lyrical and riveting tale. It takes a very talented writer to be able to do that.
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