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

Emma Donoghue's previous novel was <em>Room</em>.
Andrew Bainbridge
Emma Donoghue's previous novel was Room.

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

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