The Chaperone

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I like to travel light but there is one item I always manage to squeeze into my hand luggage when I fly out: a plane book.

On our recent trip to South America I took ’The Chaperone.” It was a perfect choice, a riveting story with lots of twists and turns. It saw me through the tedious times spent sitting around airports and the seemingly endless hours of flying in uncomfortable seats.   

The print is reasonably large so in the often dim light in a plane you don’t have to squint to read. And it’s a thick book with over 400 pages, enough to last the distance.

The main character, Cora, the chaperone, is on first appearance a wealthy respectable happily married 36 year old woman living in Wichita, a small conservative town in Kansas.

So why does she , in an age when wives were expected to stay at home, unexpectedly grab  an opportunity to travel to New York in 1922 as chaperone to Louise Brooks, a precocious, difficult but talented 15 year old teenager? A girl who has her dreams set on a career as a professional dancer with the Denishaw modern dance company.

As the story unfolds we discover that Cora’s life has been filled with complications. She first arrived in Wichita as a frightened little girl on an orphan train. Between 1854 and 1929, thousands of neglected and abandoned homeless kids, most from New York, were bundled onto these and offered to families in the West. Cora was one of the lucky ones who were welcomed into a loving family unlike others who were used as child labour or abused in other ways. But she has a strong desire to discover her roots and find her mother.

Her marriage is also fraught with difficulties. In an era with a strict moral and sexual code there is a deep secret that we as readers are privy to, but which can never be revealed even to her sons in order to protect the family’s reputation.

Chaperoning the obnoxious Louise for 5 weeks turns out to be an exercise in intergenerational tension. But this unconventional girl who is intent on breaking as many boundaries as possible also helps Cora to see life from a different perspective. And  living for a summer in the increasingly  liberal new York of the roaring twenties and meeting new people leads to further unexpected developments  .It gives Cora a chance to find her roots but also to re-evaluate her life and values and make some surprising decisions.

The Chaperone is historical fiction. Louise Brooks who became a famous dancer and an icon of the silent movie era really did exist. She did indeed go to New York in 1926 with a woman chaperone as a 15 year old to attend dance classes. Stunningly beautiful with a very distinctive haircut, men adored her, and she them, which in an age when women were supposed to save themselves for marriage (candy must remain unwrapped as Cora tries to persuade her) was sure to lead to complications.

But nothing is known about her chaperone. This allowed the author to invent Cora, a fictional woman whose life story takes place against and was influenced by the sweeping changes which were happening in America at that times relating to prohibition, women’s rights, birth control and race relations. These social and cultural changes had a huge impact on women’s lives and the seeds were sown for women’s liberation.

In due course the tightly corseted and narrow minded small town American women of that era were superseded by a later version in which the expectation came to be that girls can and will do everything.

However dislikeable and annoying Louise appears in the book it was partly because of wilful young women like her that change did happen. At times I couldn’t help admiring her for going for what she wanted.

The Chaperone is a story which will appeal especially to women. If you do decide to acquire a copy do buy the New Zealand edition. It has a very striking black and white cover image of the beautiful Louise. This cover was especially designed for Penguin Group New Zealand as they were the first country in the world to release the Chaperone. The rest of the world will have a completely different cover

Title: The Chaperone
Author: Laura Moriarty
New Zealand Edition: Penguin Group
RRP $ 35.00