Two Californian Historical Novels: Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson & Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

These two long California-set historical novels were so meticulously researched and the stories of the characters so intensely intertwined with the environment they lived in that it felt as if their writers had resurrected little pieces of the past. Despite this, neither of them quite worked for me as fiction – though I’m glad to have read both! Here are my thoughts:

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Ash Davidson’s debut novel, Damnation Spring, is set in the redwood groves in Del Norte County (“Nortay,” one of the locals mocks an outsider who visits to pronounce on the fate of the logging industry there, ‘It’s Del Nort. E’s silent, asshole’). It’s 1977, and Rich is an old-timer, felling trees for timber; his wife, Colleen, longs for another baby but keeps suffering miscarriages. It swiftly becomes apparent that the chemical sprays the logging company use to kill the brush are contaminating the community’s water supply and causing defects in unborn babies, as well as illness in children and adults. Moving away from traditional methods of sustained yield (‘not cutting faster than the forest could grow back‘) has also caused soil erosion. In short, Damnation Grove could be a case study for Suzanne Simard’s Finding The Mother Treeand also recalls other big sagas of logger families like Michael Christie’s Greenwood as well as pesticide critiques like Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation and Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer. Davidson places a neat conflict at the heart of her novel: Colleen wants the spraying to stop to protect her babies and those of her neighbours, but Rich needs the logging of the grove to continue so he can get clear-cuts through to a plot of timber he’s just bought, dreaming of felling the ‘big pumpkin’ redwoods that his father never could. And as the community realises their livelihood might be under threat from investors and environmental activists, tensions erupt.

This tidy hook makes Damnation Spring a bit formulaic and predictable, and yet it still never delivers the clash that its opening pages promise. This long novel treads water for a long time before we finally (about three hundred pages in) get to the crucial public hearing about the plans to harvest Damnation Grove. And even then, Rich and Colleen’s divisions sputter out somewhat – although I did appreciate Davidson’s commitment to making sure they both remain sympathetic. The novel feels unbalanced, with too much build-up and not enough time for these interesting questions about the rights of workers, parents, animals and trees to a place to play out. This all sounds like this was a straight fail for me, but actually I enjoyed much of Damnation Spring; I liked its immersive quality, its exploration of the daily lives and exceptional skill of loggers, and the way we take our slow, unhurried time to get to know these characters. The ending, picking up on a repetitive refrain throughout the novel, is smart and moving. I wouldn’t read this again, but it definitely provided the kind of reading experience I hope for from a historical doorstopper.

Thanks so much to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy of this novel to me!

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If Damnation Spring is an evocative historical novel, Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music sticks so closely to the historical record that it probably has a claim to being creative non-fiction. It’s set almost exactly a hundred years earlier and some three hundred miles from Damnation Spring, in San Francisco during the heat wave of 1876. Blanche is an exotic dancer and sex worker, living with her lover Arthur and his companion Ernest after all three of them left the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. She encounters the enigmatic Jenny Bonnet, a freewheeling frog-hunter who dresses in men’s clothes and rides a stolen bicycle. But when the novel opens, Jenny has just been shot dead in front of Blanche – and the rest of the story retraces their steps to ask why. Both Blanche and Jenny are arresting characters. While I didn’t like Blanche, exactly, I liked Donoghue’s bravery as she shows how circumstances have conspired to make her into a woman who ‘enjoys’ much of the sex she sells and a mother who neglects her baby. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel, even a historical one, which allows its protagonist to be such a bad mother by modern standards, and yet Donoghue’s portrayal of the poor bargains working-class parents made with baby farms rang true to me.

Donoghue perfectly evokes both the stifling heat in small lodgings in San Francisco’s Chinatown and the tension and fear surrounding the summer’s smallpox epidemic, which eventually leads to racist riots when the Chinese population are wrongly blamed. And, as her extensive author’s note demonstrates, almost all of the major characters and events in this story are true. Frog Music has some blisteringly bad Goodreads reviews, which I think are undeserved – I’ve read historical novels much duller and more info-dumpy than this one (and I loved the historical detail!) But it is probably fair to say that Donoghue’s story is rather too constrained by the facts, and she might have done better to allow herself more creative licence, especially as Blanche’s story piles one misfortune on top of another. I wanted more of Blanche and Jenny’s daring and less of the misery of baby farms, industrial schools and thieving rapists. True to history this might be, but it makes for less satisfying fiction. Nevertheless, with the sole exception of HavenI’ve never read a Donoghue novel that I didn’t think was worthwhile, so I’m going to keep checking out her back catalogue. (Of her adult novels, the only ones I haven’t read are Slammerkin, Life Mask and Landing – anyone read any of those three? Would you recommend, if so?)

Thanks very much to my local library for selling this book to me for 50p #LoveYourLibrary

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8 thoughts on “Two Californian Historical Novels: Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson & Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

  1. How fun to review these together! I’m glad you found the Davidson worthwhile. I thought her novel had a strong voice and sense of place. I’d like to see her try short stories.

    I haven’t read enough of Donoghue’s historical fiction yet to be able to make generalizations, but so far I’ve preferred her contemporary stuff. That’s a great bargain. I wish my library would sell withdrawn stock again. It’s just been DVDs recently. However, I made a special trip to an independent library at the weekend and stocked up on 3-for-£1 books for myself and to give out at our book club holiday social tomorrow evening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Akin is wonderful! I also loved The Pull of the Stars and her 1990s debut, Stir-Fry.

      I couldn’t decide whether I wanted more Jenny or not. I certainly found her more interesting than Blanche but I also wondered if she was one of those character who’s more interesting when seen from the outside, and not too often.

      Liked by 1 person

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