Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"The Chaperone": A Glimpse at One of the First Real Movie Stars

I put off reading "The Chaperone" by Laura Moriarty for the whole summer.  I'm not sure why it went to the bottom of my summer "to read" pile.  I love historical fiction, and I wanted something that wasn't WW2 historical fiction.  "The Chaperone" sheds historical light on the conflicting roles of women in the 1920s - those who hung on to tradition, and those who were paving the way for the future of women's liberation by fictionalizing the actual trip that a young Louise Brooks took to New York City with a chaperone before she became an international movie sensation.

The relationship between a 15 year old Louise Brooks and Cora Carlisle, the housewife who volunteers to be her chaperone to New York City where Louise will dance with the premier group Denishawn. Cora and Louise make an odd pair.  Louise exhibits every trait that is synonymous with the loose morals of flappers.  She is young but sexually promiscuous, she enjoys getting drunk, she loves to defy the rules, and she refuses to act with decorum and grace even going as far to wear short skirts with her stockings rolled and showing too much skin.  To Louise, her disapproving chaperone, Cora, could not be more of a drag.  Cora expects Louise to be a lady by traditional standards which to Louise means to not have fun.  The two venture to New York City together, but their experiences there are both liberating in different ways.  

Cora's on a secret mission to find out about her past.  She grew up in a orphanage in New York City only to be one of the many orphans who were forced to relocate via orphan trains.  She fared well in her childhood when a nice family took her in and seemed to hit the jack pot when a handsome lawyer asked her to marry him.  But her curiosity about her origins leads her back to her orphanage for answers.

Louise by contrast wants to be a star and can already feel the way people, especially men, respond to her gravitational pull.  Her startling beauty with her Dutch boy bob and luminescent skin stopped men in their tracks even when she was only 15 years old.  Even the legendary Denishawn troupe recognized her star quality.  She cares nothing about the past or her origins but can't wait for the future. 

I loved the first half of this book which really did illuminate the roles of women in the 1920s.  Even in fashionable and forward thinking New York City there seemed to be a divide between the old and new ways of thinking.  Women like Brooks pushed the boundaries that made it possible for women to be whatever they wanted to be, but women like Cora were stuck in the change.  They wanted more freedom, but didn't know how to go about it and Cora shows this as she undergoes her own awakening in New York City which then carries over to her life when she returns to Wichita from her two month journey as a chaperone.  

The power of this story really resides in the first half of the book that centers on the chaperone trip.  Cora's story surprisingly has more energy than Louise's.  After Cora returns to life in Wichita a changed and emboldened woman, the book lost momentum for me.  The years spanned on too long, and I wanted the same historical insights that the chaperone trip brought to light.  The mentions of Louise's career seemed an afterthought in the 2nd part of the book, and Cora's life, although interesting, wasn't enough to hold my rapt attention until the end.  

I liked this book, but not as much as Moriarty's first book "The Center of Everything" or even her second book "The Rest of Her Life".  I did, however, make a concerted effort when I was finished reading to research more about the life and times of Louise Brooks who I found to be a fascinating character in this book.  I almost wish that I was still in the classroom teaching "The Great Gatsby," so I could use some of the information I learned about women during the 1920s to help my students better understand the great divide of morality that was occurring.  

Because I wanted to learn more and because Moriarty captured me in the first half of the book, I am glad that I read this book - even if it was at the bottom of my summer pile. 

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