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"The Chaperone" Delights With Story Of Louise Brooks

May 22, 2012
Laura Moriarty's "The Chaperone" is a delightful historical novel set in the 1920s. The story is based on an episode in the life of dancer and actress Louise Brooks.

At 15 years old, Louise traveled from Wichita, Kan., to New York City in the company of a chaperone. Louise is eager to train with a reputable dance company. She happily leaves Kansas with no desire to return.

Conventional Cora Carlisle is a 36-year-old married mother of two who takes her chaperone responsibilities seriously. Cora is slightly apprehensive about reining in the precocious and independent Louise. From the start Louise makes clear her desire to be unsupervised and her disdain for her frumpy companion.

"The Chaperone" is, however, more than a simple story of the clash of opposites. Cora is a complicated woman with a secret agenda for her New York trip. Although she claims to have never left Kansas before, Cora remembers her time at the New York Home for Friendless Girls before she was adopted by a Kansas couple. While she is in New York, Cora hopes to find information about her birth mother.

Readers also learn early in the story that Cora is more open-minded than her conservative life might suggest. While other women are scandalized by Louise's short hair and bangs, Cora wonders how much cooler and lighter she might feel with bobbed hair, and she relishes the idea of getting rid of her many hairpins. Despite this desire for comfort, Cora continues to wear a corset that restricts her movement and allows her to eat only small amounts at a time.

Louise also is more complex than the image of the tough-as-nails flapper she projects. Although she appears wild and impulsive, Louise is highly determined and focused on her future. Her relationship with her mother is troubled, and Cora senses vulnerability under Louise's bravado. While she is set on attracting male attention, Louise seems to take little pleasure in it. She has high spirits without joy.

Cora attempts to protect Louise from the adult world by restricting her activities. When the women at Cora's former orphanage refuse to give her the information she seeks, her objections sound like Louise's. "Who were these old women, with their cloistered lives, to tell her what she could and couldn't know? What she needed and what she didn't?"

The weeks Cora and Louise spend in New York change both of their lives. Louise uses the time as a launching pad for her career, and Cora returns to Kansas determined to lead a happier life. "The Chaperone" is a charming story of two lives intersecting for a summer.

Laura Moriarty will discuss and sign "The Chaperone" on Thursday, June 7, 7 p.m., at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library, 225 N. Euclid Ave. Call 367-4120 for more information.

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