Reviewed by Ruth Latta
by Laura Moriarty
Paperback, 416pages, ISBN-13: 978-1594631436, June 2013
Silent film star Louise Brooks, 1906-1985, was famous for her short, black helmet of hair. She made 24 movies, went through several fortunes and marriages, and in 1938, when her film career took a downturn, returned briefly to her Wichita, Kansas home. Then she moved to New York City, where, according to her 1982 autobiography, Lulu in Hollywood, she worked first at Saks Fifth Avenue store and then as a courtesan with a select clientele. In her senior years, documentary makers and film historians were eager to interview her.
Brooks’s show business career began the summer she was fifteen, when she went to New York to attend the Denishawn school of dance. In her autobiography she mentions leaving Wichita with her chaperone, a woman with whom she had nothing in common but a love of theatre. Author Laura Moriarty took this unknown woman, named her “Cora Carlisle”, and made her the central character of The Chaperone.
Thirty-six year old Cora surprises herself and her husband, Alan, a busy lawyer twelve years her senior, by volunteering to accompany Louise to New York. Cora and Alan’s eighteen year old twin sons are away working on a farm before leaving for college, so Cora is free to travel. She has a secret reason for going with Louise – she wants to find herself, literally. During her six week stay, she not only learns about her birth parents, but also faces up to dissatisfactions in her current life. Thanks to Louise’s example, Cora finds a bold, unexpected way route to fulfilment, and in the process, helps three other people live richer, fuller lives.
Setting up the story, Moriarty cleverly inserts a jarring reference which captures Cora’s options. Moriarty presents Cora and her friend Viola chatting outside the Wichita Public Library in a Model T during a cloudburst. They, with Louise Brooks’s mother, and other middle class matrons, campaigned for women’s suffrage. Now that women have the vote, however, some of these matrons believe that the modern girl is going too far in her apparel, hairstyles and behaviour. When Viola says she’s thinking of joining the Ku Klux Klan in the interests of improving morality, most readers will pause and cringe. The murderous racism of the Klan throughout the twentieth century has been well documented. Will Cora narrow into conservative extremism, or will she embrace change and and live a fuller life?
Although the story encompasses Cora’s lifetime, her summer in New York with Louise takes up three quarters of the action of the novel, because that is where her transformation occurs. Throughout the New York section, Moriarty provides flashbacks to Cora’s early life, and “flashes forward” to show how Cora’s changed outlook will affect others in the future. The last quarter of the novel concerns Cora’s post-New-York life.
Although Cora supported the enfranchisement of women, she hasn’t applied feminist principles to her own situation. On the train to New York City, imprisoned in the corset that was mandatory in the more fitted pre-1920s fashions, Cora envies Louise her short, unbelted garments, and worries that Louise is too free and easy with strangers:
“You’ve told me you’d like to marry someday,” she tells Louise. “You’d like to be a bride… Louise, I’ll put it to you plainly. Men don’t want candy that’s been unwrapped. Maybe for a lark, but not when it comes to marriage. It may be perfectly clean, but if it’s unwrapped they don’t know where it’s been.”
Eventually, Cora feels that if she’d been experienced before marriage she might have chosen more wisely. Handsome, successful Alan rescued sixteen year old Cora from an uncertain future after her parents’ deaths, but he has stayed away from her bed since the conception of the twins.
The novel includes another big surprise. From about eighteen months to six years of age, Cora was raised by nuns at the New York Home for Friendless Girls. At six, she was sent on a Children’s Aid Society orphan train to be adopted in the American mid-west. Wikipedia informs us, under “orphan trains”, that, between 1853 and 1929, an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children were relocated, a solution to the problem of thousands of vagrant children on the New York city streets. But, as Moriarty shows, the foster and adoptive parents chose children as one would select a pet at an animal shelter, or a calf at a cattle auction. The placements were not screened or followed-up. Though some children went to exploitative and abusive people, Cora was lucky in being chosen by the Kaufmanns, a kindly Kansas farm couple. Though she liked both her parents, she understood intuitively, that Mr. Kaufmann, who had adult children by his first wife, “didn’t need her in the way Mother Kaufmann did, and that [she] had been, in a sense, a present for his young wife.”
Although both Mrs. Kaufmann and Cora, as an adult, wrote to the Home for information about Cora’s birth parents, the nuns refused to divulge any. In New York City in 1922, when Cora goes in person to the Home, a nun tells her that confidentiality is maintained, not only to protect the birth mother from embarrassment, but to shield the adoptee from information that was bound to be disappointing. Undaunted, Cora enlists the help of the janitor, Joseph, to get access to her file.
In getting to know Joseph, Cora begins to question the “received wisdom” that she hitherto has accepted at face value. Having been proud of America’s role in World War I, she is shocked that Joseph, a German immigrant, was imprisoned as an enemy alien. He came back to New York to find his business destroyed, his wife dead of the flu in 1918-19, and his daughter taken by the orphanage. He works there for little more than room and board so as to be near his child.
Before meeting her birth mother, Cora revisits her cherished earliest memory, of a shawled, dark-haired woman treating her lovingly. After the meeting, reviewing this fragmentary memory from her toddler years, she realizes that the person who showed her maternal love, before she was taken by the Home, was probably a prostitute. When Louise gets drunk and divulges that she was sexually abused as a child, first by a neighbour and more recently by her male Sunday School teacher in Wichita, Cora is shocked.
All of Cora’s New York experiences stir her compassion toward people on the fringes of society and lead her to make a big decision. She takes a chance on a stranger, finds fulfilment and readjusts the balance in her home life.
Cora’s daring decision to take into her home two virtual strangers may seem unrealistic until we reflect that benevolent strangers (her caregivers in infancy; then the nuns; the Kaufmanns; Alan and his family) took Cora in and helped her get a foothold in the world. Forced by circumstances to have faith in “the kindness of strangers”, Cora is now extending that kindness in a way familiar to her.
Near the end, Cora repays Louise for being an influence for change during that long-ago summer in New York. While some readers may criticize Cora for her secrets and subterfuges, others will consider them necessary to ensure the happiness of those dear to her.
Laura Moriarty’s three earlier novels are well worth reading. My favourite of these earlier works is While I’m Falling. The Chaperone, however, is broader in scope and required more research than the earlier works. It is a maturation story which interweaves the themes of racial equality, adoption policy, human sexuality and women’s autonomy. The Chaperone will make readers question their assumptions and preconceived notions. Laura Moriarity has created a an appealing heroine, who, in her inclusiveness and generosity, exemplifies the best qualities of Americans. The Chaperone will eventually be deemed a classic.
Ruth Latta is a Canadian writer. For more information on her latest novel, The Songcatcher and Me, and her other books, visit her website at www.cyberus.ca/~rklatta/RuthLatta.html or her blog at http://ruthlatta.blogspot.com