It’s hard to go wrong giving Mom a book, but it’s not impossible. Let me help you avoid one high risk gift! You’ve likely noticed Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue, one of the big spring reads prominently featured at your local bookstore, at Amazon, and even at Kroger. For a book with a mostly happy ending, it will really bring you (or her) down. It also includes some rather disturbing sex scenes. Not that Mom can’t handle it. But is it what she wants to be reading? Don’t be taken in by the aggressive marketing of this book; it is not for everyone.
Amy Greene’s Long Man is truly the opposite, and not because it is saccharine or predictable. I would give it to my mother, my father, my sister, or my friend – and in fact (spoiler alert, Mom and Nana Mary!) I will be giving it to my mother and mother-in-law on May 11th. For a book with some very sad moments, it will fundamentally lift you up.
I wanted to love Frog Music. You’ll remember the author, Emma Donoghue, from her gut-wrenching bestseller and Man Booker finalist, Room. Frog Music does not have the same urgency, and its darkness is far more believable than its light. The novel is based on the real-life murder of Jenny Bonnet in San Francisco in the summer of 1876. In the midst of an historic heat wave and Smallpox epidemic, Jenny Bonnet and Blanche Beunon cross paths, literally, when Jenny accidentally sideswipes Blanche. In a strange moment of chemistry – quite believable, actually – the two become fast friends. Jenny is a cross-dressing frog-catcher and figure about town, well-known to locals and authorities; Banche is the star dancer and “white flower” at the House of Mirrors evening establishment. Jenny upends the uneasy order in Blanche’s life and ends up shot dead in a bedroom with her. Blanche, in furious grief, suspects her estranged lover and his companion, who have stolen Blanche’s money and spirited away her infant son, P’tit. While the wheels of justice turn all too slowly, Blanche seeks to solve the mystery of Jenny’s murder and find P’tit on her own. Frog Music has dark undercurrents of prostitution, a missing baby, and women’s vulnerability – but it also has an overarching story line that lifts up friendship, maternal love, and the ability of a woman to reinvent her life. I wish that story line had been as compelling and believable as the darker elements of this tale.
Darkness does not overwhelm Amy Greene’s Long Man, though this novel is also set in hard times. In 1936, the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the “Long Man” River, flooding the hardscrabble community of Yuneetah in order to bring electricity and progress to an impoverished region. Greene imagines the few holdouts who have refused to leave, even as the flooding of their land is imminent. Front and center is Annie Clyde Dodson, who wants her 3-year-old daughter Gracie to remember her mother fighting to keep their land. When Gracie goes missing in a storm, with floodwaters rising and a dangerous drifter named Amos in the vicinity, the suspense becomes nearly unbearable.
At one point, Annie Clyde confronts the old healer and midwife, Beulah, who raised Amos as her own after he was abandoned as a small boy. Amos left Yuneetah for parts unknown as a young man but always returned periodically, always bringing trouble. Annie Clyde goes to Beulah’s house with a gun:
At long last Beulah opened up with a broom in her hands. She looked as tired as Annie Clyde felt. Her puckered face browned with age, the folds of her neck grimed it seemed with years of soil, wearing a shawl over her checkered dress in spite of the season. As soon as Annie Clyde saw her time seemed to stop and the words tumbled out. “I know you lied.”
Beulah studied Annie Clyde, her rheumy eyes gleaming out of wrinkled pits. “I didn’t know where he was, though,” the old woman said. “That was the truth. And he ain’t here now.”
“But you know where he could be.”
“If I did, I wouldn’t tell it. Look at you. You might shoot him.”
“I’d shoot anybody over Gracie.”
“Well. I’d take a bullet over Amos.”
Beulah pressed her mouth into a line, her chin jutting. The sun came out some. Annie Clyde felt the light on her back. “He’s my son,” Beulah said, as if that was explanation enough.
Long Man conveys hope, not despair, in spite of a multitude of sorrows. There is hope in the beauty of the land; in the ties that have bound the generations who have lived and loved and suffered together; in the lushness of Amy Greene’s prose; and most of all, in the fierceness of maternal love.